Thunderstorms plague summer in Midwest

CHICAGO -- After a series of powerful summer storms didn't break so much as a branch on the 70-foot locust in front of their Chicago home, Natalie and Wendell Tucker figured the tree could withstand just about anything.

Right up until Sunday night, that is, when it was knocked onto their house by yet another storm.

The Midwest has been hit this summer with an extraordinary conga line of storms that have flattened trees and power poles and left hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses in the dark.

"I've been here 33 years and I've never seen anything like this, all the storms we're having," said Natalie Tucker.

It's hard to find anyone who has. And that includes tree surgeons and meteorologists.

In fact, for anyone born after the Depression, this has been a July unlike any in memory.

"The official record for thunderstorms in the city for July is 13 set in 1927 and 1935," said Tom Skilling, chief meteorologist at Chicago's WGN-TV. "We've had 12 and we have more thunderstorms due this weekend."

So what's going on?

Skilling explained that the unusual weather is primarily the result of an "incredible dome of hot air" anchored over the western United States.

Places like Phoenix that are under that dome are experiencing scorching heat. But around the periphery of that dome is a jet stream that is carrying clusters of thunderstorms.

"This is sometimes called a ring of fire," Skilling said. Thunderstorms are spinning off the circle one after another, like office workers spilling out of a revolving door, or marbles skittering across a turntable.

And because the storms are being pushed along by a jet stream, they are moving a lot faster, and thus creating higher winds, than typical summer thunderstorms.

Throughout July, powerful, damaging storms have hit in a huge region that stretches from the Dakotas to Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and beyond, bringing tornadoes, drenching rain and hail the size of grapefruit.

In southern Minnesota last week, a series of tornadoes destroyed at least three homes, smashed two cars parked 50 yards apart into each other and damaged many other buildings.

This week, two days of storms flooded many people out of their homes and left three people dead in northeastern Ohio, while severe thunderstorms roared through Indiana, causing flooding and knocking over trees and bleachers at a high school.

"It's just amazing," Skilling said of the size of the region affected.

In the Chicago area, the turbulent weather pattern has created almost a daily display of nature's fireworks.

Commonwealth Edison, which supplies electricity to northern Illinois, reported more than 300,000 cloud-to-ground lightning strikes this month -- about 85,000 more than in all of last year, ComEd spokeswoman Meg Amato said.

"In talking to people who deal with this, we've never seen anything like this in at least several decades," she said.

The weather has people sounding a lot more like they live on the Gulf Coast during hurricane season than Chicago in the summer.

For the Midwest, there is little relief in sight. While these hot-air domes typically break down, there is no indication this one will fall apart anytime soon.