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St. Louis airport closed, digging out after tornado strike

By Reuters
Saturday, April 23, 2011 19:16 EDT
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(Reuters) – Crews worked on Saturday to get St. Louis’ tornado-battered airport ready to reopen after it was hit by a roaring storm that also damaged hundreds of houses, tossed cars and knocked out power.

Several injuries were reported but no fatalities.

A preliminary count showed at least 750 homes were damaged, Governor Jay Nixon told reporters after touring the area by air. Fewer than 100 homes were completely destroyed, he said.

Near a highway overpass about 10 miles from downtown St. Louis trees had been snapped like toothpicks, metal was twisted in piles, broken glass covered the ground.

Among the wrecked building’s was 58-year-old chiropractor Dennis Baker’s office, which lost its roof in the storm.

“The wind had whipped around inside with such force that it just tore everything apart,” Baker told Reuters, mopping his brow as he took a break from clearing debris.

“We found the roof sitting in our parking lot and we just started in trying to get the important stuff out,” Baker said, saying he and his wife worked from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. using the light from a small flashlight.

“We saved the computers and got some tarp up,” he said.

Other people swarmed around the wreckage, perhaps two dozen neighbors and relatives chipping in to help save Baker’s small business, about one mile from Lambert Airport.

Governor Nixon declared a state of emergency and released state funds to help in the cleanup.

He also spoke to President Barack Obama, who pledged his full support and assistance with recovery efforts, according to a statement from the governor’s office.

HUNDREDS DISPLACED

Red Cross readiness and response director Mary Anderson said that while hundreds of people have been displaced: “These are larger houses and I imagine these are families who have somewhere to go, friends, relatives, hotels.”

Lambert Airport had to be shut down after the storm hit with winds over 100 mph/160 kph, and airport director Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge said an American Airlines jet on the ground was damaged.

Several people were injured by flying glass on Friday night when the main terminal was hit at the airport, located in the city limits about 5 miles northwest of downtown.

There were no reports of injuries or deaths despite widespread destruction in a heavily populated area about three-quarters of a mile west of the airport.

“It’s just amazing that an F-4 tornado could come through a highly populated area with no fatalities. People got a 34-minute warning and that warning saved countless lives,” Nixon said.

Hamm-Niebruegge said the airport would receive less than a dozen flights on Saturday night and officially reopen Sunday morning. She said there would be no outbound flights until Sunday.

Among airlines affected by the shutdown were Delta Air Lines, Southwest Airlines and AMR Corp’s American.

The National Weather Service confirmed on Saturday that it was a tornado that hit the airport.

Some housing subdivisions were leveled by the storm. Roofs were blown off, trees smashed into houses, cars flipped over, semitrailers blown off interstate highways and windows shattered.

One-thousand people were involved in the effort to get the airport operating again, officials said.

“I was stunned last night when I saw the damage. Today I was stunned by how much has been cleaned up,” Slay said.

Power lines were reported down across St. Louis County, according to utility Ameren Missouri.

Some 26,000 were till without power on Saturday, down from 47,000 at the height of the storm, according to the company.

Over the years storms and tornadoes have claimed hundreds of lives in the St. Louis region, one of the most active urban areas for tornadoes in the United States.

The worst tornado in St. Louis history killed 137 people and left 550 injured in 1927 and was the second costliest in U.S. history, according to the St. Louis Public Library.

During a storm in 1973, an Ozark Airlines flight crashed into the University of Missouri-St. Louis while trying to land at Lambert Airport during a severe storm, killing 38 people.

(Editing by Jerry Norton and Bill Trott)

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