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Flights began landing at St. Louis’ tornado-battered airport on Saturday night, a spokesman said, after an all-out effort to repair the damage from a storm that also wrecked houses, tossed cars and knocked out power.
A preliminary count showed at least 750 homes were damaged, Governor Jay Nixon told reporters after touring the area by air. Fewer than 100 homes were completely destroyed, he said.
Several injuries were reported from the Friday night storm but no fatalities.
Lambert Airport had to be shut down after the storm hit with winds over 100 mph/160 kph, and airport director Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge said an American Airlines jet on the ground was damaged.
At the airport windows were broken, debris scattered, and holes blown in the roof of at least one terminal building, but a thousand workers were deployed on Saturday to put things back in order, and initial projections that it could be Monday at the earliest before the airport reopened were quickly rolled back.
“There have been some planes that have landed,” Lambert spokesman Jeff Lea told Reuters late Saturday night, adding that the airport was “expecting up to nine flights by midnight,” although there could be some delays.
Earlier Lea had said power had been restored to the full terminal, and that: “We will have 70 percent of our facilities functional tomorrow,” when departures were expected to resume.
“We have spent the day boarding up windows and getting the roof holes buttoned up, cleaning up debris. And terminal one had a lot of glass blown out and we are clearing that out.”
“It isn’t going to be a pretty terminal but it will be a functioning terminal,” Lea said.
Elsewhere recovery work looked set to take longer.
Near a highway overpass about 10 miles from downtown St. Louis trees had been snapped like toothpicks, metal was twisted in piles, broken glass covered the ground.
Among the wrecked building’s was 58-year-old chiropractor Dennis Baker’s office, which lost its roof in the storm.
“The wind had whipped around inside with such force that it just tore everything apart,” Baker told Reuters, mopping his brow as he took a break from clearing debris.
“We found the roof sitting in our parking lot and we just started in trying to get the important stuff out,” Baker said, saying he and his wife worked from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. using the light from a small flashlight.
“We saved the computers and got some tarp up,” he said.
Other people swarmed around the wreckage, perhaps two dozen neighbors and relatives chipping in to help save Baker’s small business, about one mile from Lambert Airport.
Governor Nixon declared a state of emergency and released state funds to help in the cleanup.
He also spoke to President Barack Obama, who pledged his full support and assistance with recovery efforts, according to a statement from the governor’s office.
Red Cross readiness and response director Mary Anderson said that while hundreds of people have been displaced: “These are larger houses and I imagine these are families who have somewhere to go, friends, relatives, hotels.”
Several people were injured by flying glass on Friday night when the main terminal was hit at the airport, located in the city limits about 5 miles northwest of downtown.
Among airlines affected by the airport shutdown were Delta Air Lines, Southwest Airlines and AMR Corp’s American.
Aside from the injuries at the airport, there were no other reports of people being hurt despite widespread destruction in a heavily populated area about three-quarters of a mile west of the airport.
“Its just amazing that an F-4 tornado could come through a highly populated area with no fatalities. People got a 34-minute warning and that warning saved countless lives,” Nixon said.
Power lines were reported down across St. Louis County, according to utility Ameren Missouri.
Some 26,000 were till without power on Saturday afternoon, down from 47,000 at the height of the storm, according to the company.
Over the years storms and tornadoes have claimed hundreds of lives in the St. Louis region, one of the most active urban areas for tornadoes in the United States.
The worst tornado in St. Louis history killed 137 people and left 550 injured in 1927 and was the second costliest in U.S. history, according to the St. Louis Public Library.
During a storm in 1973, an Ozark Airlines flight crashed into the University of Missouri-St. Louis while trying to land at Lambert Airport during a severe storm, killing 38 people.
Copyright © 2011 The Associated Press