Tornado causes unprecedented destruction in Salt Lake City


SALT LAKE CITY (Aug. 11, 1999) -- Emergency personnel worked late into Wednesday combing through rubble and cleaning up city streets after Utah's worst tornado in 50 years.

At least one person died and more than 100 were injured when the F-2 twister formed above the downtown area just before 1 p.m. local time and caused unprecedented destruction in a state that averages two tornadoes per year.

After tearing a 600- to 700-yard long path, the storm jumped into a northeast residential neighborhood known as The Avenues, where at least four homes were destroyed.

Early assessments show that 121 homes were damaged, 34 of which were uninhabitable.

Of the 100 reported injured people, about 50 were taken to area hospitals with 12 cases deemed severe. The fatality is the state's first recorded tornado death in this half century, according to the Storm Prediction Center (SPC), whose statistics go back to 1950. The total injured since that time had been only five.

While emergency crews worked on Wednesday, the faith community likely will gear up on Thursday for relief efforts, said Peter Van Hook, a Church World Service disaster resource facilitator based in Salt Lake City. The American Red Cross and Salvation Army established two shelters and food stations in the city, and Van Hook added that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, whose headquarters narrowly missed the destruction, has also been active.

The tornado touched down near the Delta Center in downtown Salt Lake City and tore through an outdoor expo show that was to begin Thursday, said city police public information officer Craig Gleason.

"It almost ran through the Delta Center and continued through the expo center and tore it to shreds," he said.

In the downtown area, Gleason said it looked like a bomb exploded as windows shattered in vehicles and office buildings. The wind threw some cars into treetops.

Rescue workers were still combing through downtown and The Avenues on Wednesday evening. Gleason said reports from The Avenues -- a middle class section filled with older single family homes -- were still sketchy, but at least four homes were leveled. "We still have a huge amount of search and rescue work to do," he said.

Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt announced a state of emergency and members of the Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency are conducting damage assessments, said Alicia McGregor, public information officer for the Utah Division of Comprehensive Emergency Management. Ruptured gas lines caused downtown fires, but she said all were extinguished by late afternoon.

McGregor was unsure of previous tornadoes in Salt Lake City, although a television station said one occurred in 1935.

Though tornadoes are rare, McGregor says the CEM responded in typical disaster mode. "We are taking all of the safety precautions that we would in any other disaster," she said.

With the one fatality, the death toll from 1999's tornadoes stands at 92, according to the SPC. Last year, 130 people -- only four after July 1 - lost their lives in tornadoes.

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