Disaster, miracle seen in swath of destruction

2011-04-24T00:25:00Z 2011-04-28T20:29:03Z Disaster, miracle seen in swath of destructionFrom staff reports stltoday.com
April 24, 2011 12:25 am  • 

There are shocking images of collapsed homes and leveled neighborhoods that will need months, if not longer, to rebuild. The worst storm in the St. Louis area in more than 40 years cut a wide swath of destruction, especially in north St. Louis County.

"There's nothing to compare it to," Bridgeton Mayor Conrad Bowers said while surveying the damage that Friday night's storm left on his own street. "It's a disaster."

But there are also sighs of relief - no serious injuries, no deaths - with some wondering about a higher power at play. At Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, where rushing winds tossed cars and blew out windows, passenger jets are actually landing again.

And at the First Baptist Church of Ferguson - where dozens of windows were shattered, part of the roof was ripped off and two vans were overturned - cleanup volunteers pledged to move forward.

"We haven't missed an Easter since 1942," said Ken Bouas, the church's facilities manager, "and we're not going to miss this one."

The powerful storms caused widespread damage across 10 miles of north St. Louis County, driven by winds reaching 200 mph. Areas of New Melle and Granite City also saw damage, though not as extensive.

The National Weather Service confirmed tornado touchdowns in New Melle, Bridgeton, Granite City and at Lambert on Friday night. The Weather Service also believes there was a touchdown in Maryland Heights but is still taking measurements.

At least 2,700 buildings, including homes and businesses, were severely damaged in north St. Louis County. Officials at Lambert, which closed Friday night in its first weather-related shutdown since 1995, say it will cost millions to repair storm damage there.

Officials were surprised that more people weren't seriously hurt, given the scale of the storm and how far it reached.

"We're calling it a miracle," said Michael Smiley, director of emergency management for St. Louis County.

At least 900 buildings in Bridgeton suffered severe damage, according to preliminary assessments by St. Louis County's Office of Emergency Management. The numbers are even worse for Maryland Heights, where about 1,170 buildings were severely damaged. Berkeley also took a hard hit, with more than 450 severely damaged buildings.

The National Weather Service said the St. Louis area hadn't seen such severe and widespread storm damage since 1967.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon has declared a state of emergency, allowing state agencies to assist local authorities with their emergency response. Nixon took an aerial tour of the region on Saturday with St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and County Executive Charlie A. Dooley.

Nixon said at a news conference that "this is the longest trail of destruction from the air that I have ever seen personally." He also said he had talked to President Barack Obama, who "indicated the full cooperation of the federal government in our recovery efforts."

Late Saturday night, Ameren was reporting more than 25,000 electricity outages in St. Louis County - down from about 47,000 who lost power during the storm.

Parts of Interstates 70 and 270 that had shut down on Friday night were reopened by Saturday morning, after crews cleared them. They pushed much of the debris to the side of the roadways, and it will take several days to clear the piles. Officials warned motorists not to slow to gawk at the debris, as many have been doing.

Despite the region's weariness from Friday night's storms, more may be on the way.

Forecasters say the area may be at risk for more tornadoes Monday afternoon and evening, when another severe storm system is expected to move in. Until then, the rain will continue, which has officials worried about flooding.

"The biggest threat over the next 24 to 48 hours is just how much has fallen," said Jim Sieveking, the lead forecaster at the National Weather Service in St. Louis. "Almost all the rivers are either in flood stage or they're going to reach flood stage just due to the rainfall we've received so far."

'WHERE IS THE ROOF?'

Hours after the storm struck on Friday night, Berkeley Police Chief Frank McCall Jr. told his weary officers that the worst wasn't yet behind them.

"My fear," McCall said, "was what we were going to find when day breaks."

What they found confirmed his fear - fallen trees, downed power lines, roofs lying on streets, houses turned into piles of wood. McCall's officers started telling residents they needed to clear out of badly damaged homes.

"A lot of the residences are going to be condemned," he said.

In Maryland Heights, Paul Goldkamp returned to the Rose Acres subdivision on Saturday afternoon to salvage items from a house he had been renting on Glenrose Drive.

"What I'm wondering is, where is the roof?" said Goldkamp, 52.

It was across the street - on top of a neighbor's pickup.

In Bridgeton, Mario Delgado recalled the "loud boom" as the roof came off his house and the "rumbling and shaking" that followed. Delgado, his wife, Shelly, and their two daughters, Marley, 9, and Maya, 6, emerged from their basement to find most of their three-bedroom home on Old St. Charles Road destroyed. Only parts of some walls were left standing.

The Delgados culled through the rain-soaked rubble on Saturday for still-usable household items and family mementoes, lining up emergency housing and talking with insurance adjusters.

Still, Delgado, 39, was relieved that his family wasn't injured.

"We're safe," he said. "I can't ask for anything more."

Post-Dispatch reporters Matthew Hathaway, Ken Leiser, Jennifer Mann, Paul Hampel, Mark Schlinkmann and Joel Currier contributed to this report.

 

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