Crews Work to Reopen St. Louis Airport After Storm

The Associated Press

ST. LOUIS – A severe storm that struck the St. Louis area left homes flattened in suburbs around the main airport, which remained closed Saturday a day after being hit by a tornado.

Crews had worked through the night in trying to clean up Lambert Airport, boarding up windows and sweeping up shattered glass. That effort pressed on Saturday, with police standing guard at spots where windows had been blown out. No passengers were evident.

In nearby suburbs, people wandered through neighborhoods where roofs had been torn off homes and multiple houses were flattened. An Associated Press photographer who flew over Bridgeton and Maryland Heights saw vehicles turned over in yards and in driveways and trees that had been toppled.

“I would say it looked like a bomb went off,” photographer Jeff Roberson said.

In one case, a roof had been lifted off a house, and Roberson said he could see all the household items inside, including the dining room table.

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and the airport’s director, Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge, told reporters Saturday that the airport could reopen Sunday at 70 percent capacity, depending on the quickness in getting power restored and the ability of affected airlines to shuffle some of their terminal arrangements.

Ameren Missouri reported some 35,000 customers were without power Saturday morning.

The National Weather Service confirmed a tornado had it the airport, ripping away a large section of the main terminal’s roof.

National Weather Service meteorologist Scott Truett said it was possible that a tornado that touched down near the St. Charles County town of New Melle was the one that ripped into the airport and apparently other parts of St. Louis County. If that was the case, the tornado sustained itself for roughly 30 miles.

The storm also brought absurdly large hail to some areas — softball-sized in Warren County, west of St. Louis. Flash flooding closed some roads, including Highway 67 near Farmington.

Dianna Merrill, 43, a mail carrier from St. Louis, was at Lambert Airport waiting to fly to New York with a friend for vacation. She said her flight had been delayed by weather and she was looking out a window hoping her plane would pull up. But the window suddenly exploded.

“Glass was blowing everywhere. The ceiling was falling. The glass was hitting us in the face. Hail and rain were coming in. The wind was blowing debris all over the place,” she said. “It was like being in a horror movie. Grown men were crying. It was horrible.”

Merrill said she felt lucky to be alive and that airport workers quickly moved people to stairwells and bathrooms to get them out of harm’s way.

The airport’s main terminal sustained the most damage. Hamm-Niebruegge said roughly half of that structure’s windows were blown out, sending glass and rain into the building. Elsewhere on the property, trees were toppled and power lines downed, limiting access even hours after the storm passed.

But the airfield itself was fully functional, Hamm-Niebruegge said, perhaps allowing some airlines to shuttle in crews.

“We will not have departures out of here today, but we expect a good number of departures out of here tomorrow,” Hamm-Niebruegge said. Slay added that it was hoped the airport would be up to full capacity by the middle of next week.

“This effort is going to take the cooperation and involvement of people of all levels of government,” Slay said. “We are confident we will make this airport as good as it’s ever been in terms of its condition.”

Hamm-Niebruegge and Charlie Dooley, St. Louis County’s executive, said they felt blessed there weren’t more injuries than the five victims who were taken to hospitals, all of them later treated and release.

“When you look at the devastation around, it really is a miracle there were no fatalities,” Hamm-Niebruegge said.

A dozen passengers stayed in the terminal Friday night, given pillows and blankets, Hamm-Niebruegge said. Hundreds of travelers were delayed, although the storm’s affect was mitigated because it hit on a night when the airport is generally less occupied.

“As late as it was in the evening, there was only a handful of flights coming in,” she said.

Airlines were assessing damage to their planes Saturday. Southwest Airlines Co. spokeswoman Marilee McInnis said it had one plane damaged by a baggage loading conveyer belt that was pushed by the wind. American Airlines said four of its planes were damaged, two of them significantly.

Southwest canceled all St. Louis flights through 4 p.m. Saturday. American, which operates out of the heavily-damaged main terminal, won’t fly out of St. Louis until at least Monday morning, spokesman Ed Martelle said.

Spokeswomen for Greyhound and Amtrak said both modes of alternate transportation stood ready to handle an increased demand from storm-affected travelers trying to make their way out of St. Louis, though it was not immediately clear how many of those people were trying to catch buses or trains.