St. Louis area begins cleanup

Thankful there were no serious injuries, residents assess tornado damage

BY JOHN PAPE | ST LOUIS, MO | April 25, 2011

"I donít know why God decided to spare our lives, but Iím thankful for it"

—Joni Bellinger, Ferguson Christian Church

Local officials are saying it may take months for the St. Louis area to fully recovery from an EF-4 tornado that tore through the north part of the county on Good Friday, severely damaging more than 100 homes and part of Lambert-St. Louis International Airport.

During a Sunday news conference, St. Louis County officials said some 2,700 buildings sustained at least some degree of damage.

The funnel cut a swath almost 30 miles long through some nine suburban cities and unincorporated parts of northern St. Louis County.

Luckily, there were no fatalities from the storm that hit Friday evening, even as the busy airport was filled with holiday travelers.

An unspecified number of airport passengers were injured by flying glass as the funnel blew out most of the terminal’s windows, according to Airport Director Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge.

“We’re fortunate we didn’t have larger (numbers) of injuries,” Hamm-Niebruegge said.

The storm damage shut the busy airport down entirely for almost 24 hours. Concorse C was so heavily damaged that it will remain closed indefinitely.

The first arrivals into Lambert following the storm came in late Saturday. Departures resumed on Easter Sunday.

While the tornado interrupted Easter travel plans for some, it forever changed how one church community will remember Easter 2011. Members of the Ferguson Christian Church, located less than five miles east of the airport, had gathered in the sanctuary to watch “The Passion of the Christ” when the funnel hit.

The twister took the roof off the sanctuary; however, everyone emerged unscathed. Pastor Stacy Garner heard the tornado warnings and ushered everyone into the basement just before the funnel struck the church. The group reached shelter only moments before the roof was pulled into the funnel.

“I don’t know why God decided to spare our lives, but I’m thankful for it,” Children’s Minister Joni Bellinger said after the storm.

With the church in shambles, parishioners were forced to cancel Easter sunrise services, but regular Easter Sunday services went on as planned at St. Louis Christian College in nearby Florissant.

“Though the damage is extensive, we praise God that no one was hurt or killed. Recovery efforts are going on right now,” the church said in a message posted on its website.

The Salvation Army and American Red Cross immediately mobilized throughout the affected areas, establishing emergency shelters for those displaced by the storm, passing out clean-up kits and providing hot meals and snacks for victims and relief workers.

Gary Busiek with the Salvation Army said his organization fed roughly 800 people a day on Saturday and Sunday, providing three meals a day. Additional resources were placed on standby at Salvation Army facilities throughout the Midwest, should they be needed in St. Louis.

Cindy Ericson with the Red Cross reported eight mobile feeding units were already in the area, and some 700 people had been fed since the tornado hit.

“We will continue to do that over the next several days,” Ericson said.

Storm victims and local officials alike credited early warnings from the National Weather Service and local weathercasters for saving lives. Broadcasts urged area residents to take shelter more than 30 minutes before the funnel hit.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon was among those crediting the warnings for preventing fatalities.

“The bottom line is the 34 minute warning and the heeding of that warning by the citizens has saved countless lives,” Nixon said.

Nixon spent much of the weekend touring hard-hit areas like the suburban city of Berkeley.

John Stein, who owned two houses in Berkeley that were destroyed, said what remained in the storm’s path was virtually unrecognizable. He described the scene as “everything you’d find in a war zone, except the bodies.”

Berkeley Mayor Kyra Watson said despite the widespread damage, residents remained upbeat.

“My community is pulling together wonderfully and supporting one another,” Watson said.

Moline Acres Mayor Michele DeShay said her community was also pulling together to recover. DeShay also said she was grateful no one lost their life in the tornado.

“We are just thankful to God that there were no fatalities,” she said.

DeShay also praised the work of the Salvation Army and Red Cross for responding so rapidly to those in need.

“They were there for us when we needed them,” she said.

In Maryland Heights, roofs were ripped off homes, windows blown out and siding stripped from businesses. The damage from the storm also forced the city to cancel Saturday’s planned Easter egg hunt for children.

One of the Red Cross shelters was opened at the Maryland Heights Community Center.

Mayor Mike Moeller said it would take “months to get the people back into their homes.”

“I wish there was a better way to celebrate Easter, but we’re thankful there are no serious injuries,” Moeller said.

The suburb of Bridgeton was particularly hard hit, with 65 homes totally destroyed, more than 200 damaged, seven businesses “mostly destroyed” and 35 others damaged, according to Police Chief Don Hood.

Bridgeton Mayor Conrad Bowers, whose home was one of those damaged, called the devastation “utterly unbelievable,” with homes reduced to piles of debris, vehicles tossed around like toys and landscape stripped down to the dirt.

“If you look at some of the houses, I mean, complete devastation Ė complete; houses leveled,” Bowers said.

He praised the quick response of local police officers, as well as law enforcement agencies from surrounding communities.

Bowers also said neighbors, some of whom had lost their own homes, immediately began to check on their neighbors. He called the spirit of the community “just outstanding.”

The mayor recounted the story of one man checking on a neighbor being so relieved to find his friend alive and well that he resorted to humor.

“When he found out his neighbor was alright, he then told him, “OK, then get your house out of my driveway,’” the mayor said.

Bowers also told the story of another Bridgeton resident who ran into the basement so quickly, he forgot to put on a belt. He told his wife he was going back upstairs to get one.

“When he looked out the basement door, he turned back to his wife and said, ‘There is no upstairs.’ That’s how quick the tornado hit,” Bowers said.

St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley said despite the damage, residents “still have joy in their hearts.”

He also pledged to do everything necessary to provide help to storm victims.

“This county was devastated; families were really destroyed in this event,” Dooley said. “That cannot be taken lightly.”

Dooley said the state threshold for a disaster declaration was $7.2 million in damage “in the public sector alone,” while the county had a $3.3 million damage threshold. Damage assessments were still being conducted as of Sunday, but Dooley said he believed the damage thresholds would be met.

At least one St. Louis County school was so seriously damaged that it was deemed unsafe for students. Students at Griffith Elementary School in Ferguson will be bused to Ferguson Middle School until repairs can be made.

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