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St. Louis Airport Bears Brunt Of Storm

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Last night, the St. Louis area was hit by a powerful tornado. With winds upwards of 136 miles per hour, the suburban neighborhoods at Maryland Heights had several dozen homes severely damaged. There were roofs torn off, some homes are completely flattened. The brunt of the storm damaged the Lambert-St. Louis Airport, where the scene was quite disturbing, according to eyewitnesses.

Unidentified Man: The lights are out in the terminal. There's water just kind of pouring from the ceiling in terminal C. There's blood on the ground. There's glass everywhere. I guess the glasses caught people.

WERTHEIMER: A short while ago, we spoke to St. Louis' mayor, Francis Slay, who was at the airport.

Mayor FRANCIS SLAY (Democrat, St. Louis, Missouri): I was here shortly after it happened. As soon as I heard there was a sighting of a tornado at the airport, I came on out, took a tour of it, and it was stunning. The roof was blown off in some places. The big windows on either side of the concourse were blown out. Now, these are double pane, shatter-resistant windows. A lot of rainwater, of course, was all over the concourse, a lot of debris. Things were just disheveled. Signs were flipped over and torn off the walls. But fortunately, even with all that significant damage that this airport sustained, there was very few injuries. Only five people were taken to the hospital, all of which had been released, so there was no severe injuries. So we're very fortunate that based on the damage we saw, there weren't more injuries.

WERTHEIMER: Do you have any idea why that was? Why so many people escaped serious injury?

Mayor SLAY: There was an announcement for people to take cover, so a number of people did. And the concourse was already beyond the height of its traffic for the evening, so we didn't have as many people in that concourse that we might otherwise have had if that storm would have come in earlier.

WERTHEIMER: It must still have been terrifying for the travelers who were in the airport. Did you get to talk to any of them?

Mayor SLAY: I didn't get to talk to any of the travelers, but I can tell you, I did see the security cameras' videos and it was pretty amazing to see how strong the winds - it was like a huge wind tunnel through the concourse. And in one area of the airport, the winds were going very strong in one direction and then within seconds it turned around and started coming back the other way. And I did see a few people, they were TSA workers, dodging debris and getting out of the way. It was very scary.

WERTHEIMER: What about the conditions in the rest of the city?

Mayor SLAY: The rest of the city, we've seen generally some relatively moderate damage that we're aware of but nothing significant, nothing near what we've seen here at the airport. Just mutual severe storm damage, let's put it that way, you know, some downed trees. But nothing that I'm aware of that was significant at this point.

WERTHEIMER: Mayor Slay, you have any idea when you'll be able to get this airport up and running again?

Mayor SLAY: The busiest concourse that we have here, it's going to take quite some time. It'll take every bit of months to get this thing back. But as far as generally the airport - this is our goal - to have it at 70 percent capacity by tomorrow. And that's going to depend on two things: if we can get our power on at a reasonable time today.

And the other thing is the airlines. They actually run the airplanes. They're the ones that fly the airplanes. So they will have to move their flights to other concourses that we're going to be able to get open.

WERTHEIMER: Francis Slay is the mayor of the city of St. Louis. Thanks for talking to us.

Mayor SLAY: Oh, thank you so much. My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.