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3 tornadoes slammed region; more than 100 St. Charles County homes uninhabitable

3 tornadoes slammed region; more than 100 St. Charles County homes uninhabitable


UPDATED at 5:30 p.m.

The Friday night storm which slammed the St. Louis region is believed to have included three tornadoes, the National Weather Service said Saturday.

In St. Charles County, one of the hardest areas hit, officials late Saturday afternoon had declared more than 100 homes uninhabitable because of major structural problems. An additional 100-plus had low or moderate damage.

"We expect that number to rise," said county spokeswoman Colene McEntee.

Cottleville Fire Protection District Chief Rob Wylie called the lack of serious injuries from the storms "miraculous."  As of Saturday afternoon, eight injuries, all minor, had been reported.

Wylie said damage cost estimates are expected to filter in on Monday.

The storm also knocked out electric power for thousands of homes and businesses in St. Louis County and the Edwardsville area and various streets were blocked.

Julie Phillipson, a meteorologist at the weather service, said survey teams' preliminary data indicated that an EF-3 tornado carved a 22-mile path from Weldon Spring Heights and Harvester in St. Charles County to Earth City, Bridgeton and Ferguson in St. Louis County.

That track's end point has yet to be determined. Winds reached as high as 150 mph in the Weldon Spring-Harvester area, she said.

She said a second EF-3 tornado appeared to have hit the Roxana area in Madison County. The third,  believed to be of EF-2 strength, was around Gillespie, Ill., about 50 miles northeast of St. Louis.  There more than 60 residences and some businesses were damaged.

The St. Louis area also was hit by record rains Friday, with Lambert-St. Louis International Airport getting 1.74 inches, slightly above the old record of 1.72 inches in 1906.

A key damage area in St. Charles County was around the Harvest Estates subdivision off Towers Road near Weldon Spring.

Three houses on Haversham Drive were leveled and a dozen more damaged extensively.

The owner of one of the destroyed homes, Keith Walton, was on the scene late Saturday morning after returning home from a shortened Florida vacation.

Walton said he and his wife, Shannon, and their seven-year-old daughter, Lexi, found out Friday night about the damage from neighbors and took a flight home from Fort Myers.

"Neighbors sent one devastating text saying your whole second floor is gone," said Walton, an AT&T employee.

Walton said he broke down when he first saw the family's damaged home after Saturday morning. Still, he said "we were blessed not to be here" when the storm hit.

Walton was interviewed as he looked through the neighborhood for items scattered from his home. Friends gave him hugs and brought him photos they had found.

"It's great to see neighbors, volunteers and everybody out here helping," he said.

He said his daughter was most concerned about her American Girl doll but that her grandmother had found it.  He said he was most concerned about his Bible but that neighbors found it.  Neighbors also found much of the family's clothing.

The storm was the second blow to the Waltons in the week. On Thursday, they learned that their 12-year-old Chocolate lab, Quincy, who was staying in a St. Louis area kennel, had to be euthanized because of illness.

The Waltons' next-door neighbor, Greg Bilbry, said he and his wife escaped with their lives by heading to the basement when they heard the storm coming.

"We hit the last step before the house caved in," he said.

He said they couldn't get out of the basement themselves because of heavy debris in the stairwells of their collapsed home, so they used a cell phone to call 911.  Cottleville firefighters arrived in about five minutes to get them out.

Another neighbor whose home was destroyed, Wilburn Shaw, said "worse things have happened. It's not a war. We'll recover."

Shaw, a postal worker, said he was a Vietnam veteran who has survived hurricanes while living on the East Coast and has been hit by a car in the past.  He also said he's a skydiver who survived "a problem with a parachute."

"This is my first tornado," Shaw said.

On Saturday afternoon, Gov. Jay Nixon and County Executive Steve Ehlmann took a helicopter tour of affected areas and walked through some streets near Weldon Spring.

"We're going to work to make sure all of this is rebuilt," he said on Haversham Drive.

Wylie, the Cottleville fire chief, said emergency workers across the county earlier Friday had just completed two weeks of training on how to deal with tornadoes and other calamities.

"It was deja vu," Wylie said. "The same calls we were getting in training were going out for real."

He said what emergency workers ended up doing Friday - dealing with fallen power lines and trees, securing gas lines and looking for trapped people - "tracked out exactly the way the training tracked out."

Parts of the city of Weldon Spring, the unincorporated area of Harvester and other unincorporated areas also sustained damage, officials said.

At the Family Arena in southern St. Charles, five weekend high school graduation ceremonies were diverted to other locations because of a hole in the roof allowing water to fall into a concourse.

Ceremonies for Francis Howell North, Francis Howell and Francis Howell Central, originally scheduled for Saturday at the arena, will now be Sunday at the football stadium at Lindenwood University in St. Charles.

Howell North will hold its event will be at noon, Howell at 3:30 and Howell Central at 6:30.

Sunday's ceremonies for Mehlville and Oakville high schools have been switched from the Family Arena to Oakville High at the regularly scheduled times.

Power loss at the University of Missouri-St. Louis forced Hazelwood high schools to move their commencement exercises, originally set for Saturday, to Sunday.

About 86,000 Ameren customers in Missouri and Illinois were still without power at about 6:30 p.m. Saturday - mostly in north St. Louis County from Bridgeton to Spanish Lake.

Ameren officials said crews with more than 800 people are in the field working to restore power. The company has requested 400 to 500 workers from other utilities to help.

The most damage to power equipment occurred in Berkeley, Bridgeton, Florissant, other parts of North County and St. Charles.

Mike Smiley, St. Louis County's emergency management director, said the storm appeared to have lost intensity when it crossed the Missouri River.

"Once it got into St. Louis County, it didn't do the damage it did in St. Charles County," he said.

The storm did minor structural damage in Earth City and Maryland Heights but there were no building collapses in St. Louis County.

One of the hardest hit areas in the county was the Timber Ridge Apartments off Interstate 270 near Spanish Lake. Eight of the complex's 12 apartment buildings sustained roof damage, making them uninhabitable. The Weather Service said numerous trees fell on homes in Berkeley and Ferguson.

In Illinois, Edwardsville officials reported at least seven homes had significant damage from fallen trees and limbs.  Many trees were uprooted, police said.

Many major streets were blocked by downed trees for a time, including North Main Street near the junction of Highways 143 and 159.

Police closed Highway 159 north of the city near Fox Creek while crews worked Saturday to deal with electric wires draped six feet above the pavement.

On Friday night, emergency workers helped some teenagers trapped in a car on Carpenter Road when power lines fell on the vehicle. Police said the lines weren't live, as it turned out, but said the occupants did the right thing by waiting for help to arrive.

The damage in Gillespie included the high school gym, where part of the roof collapsed. The concession stand next to the football field was destroyed.

"The best thing about this is no one was hurt," Mayor John Hicks said.


* The North Lindbergh Boulevard tunnel at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport was shut down Saturday afternoon because of a power failure related to the Friday night storm.

Tom Blair, assistant district engineer for the Missouri Department of Transportation, said the failure has shut down lights and fans in the quarter-mile-long tunnel.  MoDOT was suggesting that motorists instead use Interstate 270.

* A power failure hit nearby DePaul Health Center in Bridgeton from 12:30 a.m. to about 3:20 p.m. Saturday, forcing the hospital to use its back-up generators.  As a precaution, DePaul for several hours diverted incoming patients to other hospitals. 

* In the Riverport area of Maryland Heights, the Hollywood Casino St. Louis reopened. The building sustained some cosmetic damage but escaped any structural damage.

* Crews were preparing Saturday to possibly shut a stretch of Highway 47 between Washington, Mo. and Highway 94 in Warren County because of projected  flooding of the Miissouri River spurred by the Friday night storm.

Tom Blair, assistant district engineer for the Missouri Department of Transportation, said sandbagging is underway to keep the stretch open as long as possible - hopefully until dark.

* The governor, while talking with reporters in St. Charles County, said a big concern now is rising rivers, streams and tributaries "and people trying to drive through them."

He said there had been three recent flooding-related deaths in outstate Missouri and may have been a fourth but none were in the St. Louis area.

* A barge broke loose about noon Saturday on the Missouri River at St. Charles.  The barge, which was used by construction workers involved with the Blanchette Bridge rehab project, was stopped at a railroad bridge near Highway 370.

Mark Schlinkmann, Steve Giegerich, Blythe Bernhard, Kavita Kumar, Nicholas J.C. Pistor and Denise Hollinshed of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.


Our previous story:

By VALERIE SCHREMP HAHN of the Post-Dispatch

ST. LOUIS • Powerful storms smacked the St. Louis area Friday night, downing trees and power lines and ripping up buildings but apparently sparing people from death or serious injury.

“We had some funnel clouds, wall clouds, rotations — all kinds of stuff,” said Mark Fuchs of the National Weather Service. But he said the agency will not be able to confirm any reports of tornadoes until its people get out and verify the damage.

St. Charles County and northwest St. Louis County seemed to bear much of the damage, but problems were reported in a swath across the region and out to its eastern edge. In Gillespie, Ill., about 50 miles northeast of St. Louis, part of the high school collapsed.

Gov. Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency in Missouri because of spot flooding as well as wind and hail damage, coordinating state resources with local agencies.

Residents and officials started the cleanup almost immediately, but more rain and wind on Saturday morning slowed efforts. 

Lt. Dave Tiefenbrunn of the St. Charles County Sheriff’s Office said it had no reports of serious injuries, but understood that several houses in the Whitmoor subdivision and on Haversham Drive sustained “extensive damage” and may have been nearly leveled.

“Numerous off-duty officers have been called in to patrol the area to keep things safe,” he said. “The fire department is out there, checking gas lines and things like that.”

Police and fire authorities had set up a command center at QuikTrip at 94 and Kisker Road in St. Charles County to attend to “widespread, extensive” damage, said a sheriff’s spokesman, Lt. Craig McGuire.

St. Charles Fire Department Capt. Dan Casey said his neighborhood, between Caulks Hill and Jungs Station roads, “got hit pretty hard,” and a tree fell on the front part of his house, taking out a window and part of his roof.

“We’ve got trees down everywhere, siding gone, and pieces of roof gone,” he said. “There’s no major damage, but we have some big trees that are down. Everywhere around here, you can’t get through.”

He said the storm blew off the doors of the Central County Fire Station on Jungs Station Road.

The Francis Howell School District posted on Twitter that because of damage reported at the Family Arena, all three high school graduations scheduled for Saturday were canceled.

The St. Louis County Office of Emergency Management said the Hollywood Casino in Maryland heights suffered significant roof damage but no one was hurt.

St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann declared a state of emergency for the county, said county spokeswoman Colene McEntee. She reported the damage seemed to be confined to a ten square mile area between Caulks Hill and Pitman Hill Roads.

Three or four homes were leveled where the most extensive damage was, in the Cambridge Crossing, Whitmoor and Camelot subdivisions. Ten homes on Pralle Road were missing roofs, and Becky David Elementary school sustained roof damage.

The roof damage at the Family Arena consisted of a hole in the roof on the street side with water coming into the concourse.

Crews planned to work throughout the night responding to damage.

Matthew Hampton, of Dighton, Kan., took refuge with his family at a Schnucks store on St. Charles Rock Road after the storm blew the rear window out of their SUV on Interstate 70.

He said the weather chased them across the state on their way to Disney World, in Florida, and caught them near Lambert-St. Louis International Airport.

“I swear I saw a funnel,” he said.

His niece, Samantha Dickenson, 17, of Lawton, Okla., said she has seen a number of powerful storms and, “This is the scariest one yet.” She said her family is in the process of moving to Moore, Okla., where a tornado killed 24 people May 20.

Interstate 70 was closed in the Earth City area because of downed wires and storm debris, as firefighters checked for possible structural damage at a Holiday Inn Express.

St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch said, “We’re doing a building-to-building search in Earth City, because all of them are closed, for the most part. We’re seeing if any have been left open because of damage, and calling business owners out.”

Dan Baranowski, of Chicago, said he drove through hail to reach the Wingate Hotel in Maryland Heights and arrived to fight a wall of water and high wind. He and others took refuge in an inner room of the building, which lost power.

Benita Picker, of Bridgeton, was visiting a friend at the Homewood Suites on Riverport Drive because of the odors from work at the smoldering Bridgeton Landfill. She said she retreated to a bathroom when she thought she heard the telltale freight-train sound of a tornado.

Highway 141 was closed between Page Avenue and Highway 370 because of fallen trees and power lines, the Missouri Department of Transportation reported.

The Missouri Highway Patrol reported no major accidents, just tree limbs and power lines down across roads.

Four outbuildings at Lambert were damaged, and flights were grounded until the storm cleared, St. Louis city spokeswoman Maggie Crane reported. Officials inspected the runway for debris before flights could be cleared for takeoff.

Rotating and funnel clouds were reported throughout the area, including the Barrington Downs subdivision, in Florissant, and near Towers and Caulks Hill roads in St. Charles County. But no tornadoes had been confirmed.

There also was wind damage reported in Wood River and Hartford, the Weather Service said.

Spectators at Circus Flora, in Grand Center, were told to go to the Veterans Hospital across the street, and the Cardinals game against the Giants at Busch Stadium was called off. A doubleheader will be played today, with the games set to start at 12:15 p.m. and 6:15 p.m.

Stadium operations executive Mike Bertani said there was no damage to the stadium, no debris and no incidents involving fans. Security officials said they took several tours of the stadium but found no problems.

About 88,000 customers were without power in the Missouri side of the metro area at 11 p.m., Ameren Missouri said, and about 30,000 in Illinois.

A few windows were blown out at DePaul Health Center in Bridgeton, and hospital authorities called a “Code Black,” which meant a tornado had been sighted. Patients were taken to the hallways, but the code was called off.

In Illinois, wind plucked part of the roof off of Midwest Motor Sports, a motorcycle shop in Hartford, and wrapped it around a utility pole across Route 3 near the Road Ranger gas station, about 100 yards away.

Lorra Sabo, 55, of Staunton, a clerk at a Subway restaurant there, said people began rushing in from their cars just before hunks of wood knocked glass out of the front doors. “We had 10 people in the cooler,” she said.

Jesse Bogan, Nicholas J.C. Pistor, Tim Bryant, Ken Leiser and Steve Giegerich of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

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