St. Louis Survives Fiercest Tornado in Half a Century

The storms damaged close to 3,000 buildings and closed the city's airport--and yet no one died

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The Midwest has carried a reputation for tornadoes for decades, famously immortalized in the epic cyclone of 1939's Wizard of Oz, but no film could have anticipated the surreal gusts that hit St. Louis, Missouri last week. Storms more powerful than any in the past 44 years blew through the city's northern suburbs--two tornadoes, reports now confirm, shook the Gateway to the West on Friday, April 22, and, according to the city's newspaper, damaged around 200 homes, the Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, 35 businesses, and churches, with a total of 2,700 buildings affected--but somehow failed to kill a single person. The airport even reopened to accept arriving flights by the next night.

The Associated Press called the verdict a miracle in its Monday headline, a reflection of the stunned sentiment of many residents of the Midwestern city. "Early warnings, good timing, and common sense," the AP declared in explanation.

Even so, photos collected in the gallery below reveal the staggering devastation left by the twisters, from the airport's broken glass to suburban houses with roofs ripped off. Despite a largely fortunate outcome, the recovery for both the airport and countless individuals will take months, not to mention what will likely be ongoing insurance negotiations.

As a St. Louis native now living in Washington, D.C., my first alerts of the storms sweeping through the Midwest last week came by email. On April 19, my mother sent a message with the simple subject line: "tornado" and told me she was in the basement with the canned goods. She reported hail the size of ice cubes and high winds. "As you can see, I brought my laptop with me," she wrote. "I also have candles lit, and my phone is with me. Luckily the animals [two cats and a maltese poodle] don't seem disturbed by this." On April 22, again came a message: "FYI: I'm back in the basement!!" Mothers always do offer the practical perspective. Luckily, my own mom lives south of the region badly affected, and my family's house survived just fine.

Yet I won't be returning to my home city again without setting foot in one of the sites most impacted: the Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. On Friday, the airport's last tweet before the storms noted that it was the Christian holiday of Good Friday, and that "even at the Airport, you can strengthen your faith." Soon after, tornadoes blew out more than half of one concourse's windows and knocked signs and even vans off the ground. Debris flew, and Concourse C ended up with a gaping hole in its roof. Multiple airport cameras captured footage of the winds ripping through the terminals, as in this video shared by Missouri radio station KMOX:

Five people in the airport were hospitalized with injuries, but none were especially serious. By Saturday, Missouri's governor held a press conference there, and by that evening, the airport was able to tweet "let there be light" as power and partial operations returned.

Looking back on the damage, the National Weather Service explains on its website that the tornadoes ultimately fell along 22 miles of land and the winds ranged from 40 miles-per-hour to an estimated maximum of 120 miles-per-hour--though peak winds may have briefly been as high as 200 miles-per-hour. The recent St. Louis weather marks the latest in a series of tornadoes in what has been a particularly tumultuous season for them. North America remains the world's home to tornadoes, The Washington Post reported Monday, with 900 to 1,400 occurring in the United States annually.

Image credit: AP/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, J.B. Forbes

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John Hendel is a writer based in Washington, DC, and a former producer at The Atlantic.

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