By CYRIL TUOHY, managing editor of Risk & Insurance®
A massive tornado system with winds in excess of 160 miles per hour ripped though St. Louis on Friday, April 22, damaging 2,700 buildings and shutting down Lambert-St. Louis International Airport.
The EF 4 tornado was reportedly the worst to hit St. Louis county in 40 years, according to the National Weather Service. No deaths were reported.
The storm that struck St. Louis came days after a separate rampage by a "family" of nearly 100 tornadoes that ripped through 14 states earlier this month, killing at least 45 people and causing tens of millions of dollars worth of damage.
The twisters wreaked much of their havoc in the Central Plains states and the Southeast, and they showed no mercy for either residential or commercial properties--nor did they show a propensity for destroying one more than the other.
Such, on April 15-17, was the "hit and miss" story surrounding two businesses--one large, one small--in the town of Sanford, N.C., smack in the middle of the Tar Heel State.
At the Golden Corral Buffet & Grill located at 2618 South Horner Blvd., a worker was washing kitchen equipment behind the restaurant when he spotted the familiar dark, funnel-shaped cloud, wrote Kim Severson, in a dispatch posted April 18 by The New York Times.
"He ran to his boss, Terri Rodriguez, who walked out the back door and, after dodging a piece of flying wood, saw a dark whirlwind thick with wood and metal only a couple of blocks away. About 140 people were eating in her restaurant, many of them in front of the thick plate-glass windows that run the length of the place," wrote Severson.
" 'All I could think is that I have to get them away from the glass because I knew it would just cut them in half,' " Rodriguez told Severson in the Times account. " 'I thought, where can I put them? Then I yelled: 'Tornado! Everyone to my kitchen!' "
Within seconds, Golden Corral's patrons huddled in the meat cooler, cowered behind stoves, crowded into restrooms. Five minutes later, it was all over. The twister had moved on.
The tornado "bounced up," skipped the Golden Corral and made a sharp turn, setting down instead on a Lowe's Home Improvement Center at 3015 South Horner Blvd., just a few hundred feet away, according to Rodriguez's account. "I could see the roof was just gone and all of the Lowe's stuff flying up in the air," she said, according to the Times.
Lowe's store manager, Michael Hollowell, ordered employees and customers--more than 100 people in all--to the windowless rear of the store, in accordance with the store's emergency response plans. Senior Lowe's executives have credited his actions with saving lives.
The twister ripped diagonally across the roof. The collapse sent inventory flying in all directions. Lowe's Cos. Inc. said it would rebuild the store in the same location and expects to reopen sometime in the fall.
"Either one of them had equal chances of being hit," said Tim Doggett, principal scientist at the modeling firm AIR Worldwide of the Golden Corral and the Lowe's. "One was and one wasn't. That's the nature of tornadoes. They are such localized events, with such a small footprint."
Doggett said the opposite fates of Golden Corral and Lowe's was a perfect illustration of the "hit and miss nature" that is a hallmark of tornadoes.
The most recent tornadoes and storms didn't come as a total surprise, rearing up as they did in the midst of tornado season in April and May. Still, Doggett called the storms "a potent event."
Sanford, a growing community of 29,000 people, counts more than 600 businesses belonging to the Sanford Area Chamber of Commerce. The big names include 3M, BB&T Bank, Caterpillar Inc., Central Carolina Hospital, perfume manufacturer Coty US LLC and Tyson Foods.
A building's ability to sustain wind loads determines whether it stands or falls to a tornado, Doggett said. Home improvement stores like Lowe's tend to be built like warehouses. Office buildings are more likely to have withstood the damage, albeit with a few missing panels, he said.
One National Weather Service forecaster, according to news reports, estimated North Carolina was hit by 15 to 20 tornadoes Saturday, April 16, about as many as the state receives on average every year.
The 10-year average from 2000 to 2009 for annual fatalities nationwide from tornadoes is 65 people, according to the National Weather Service's Office of Climate, Water, and Weather Services.
Across the country, more than 10,000 claims have been filed in connection with damage from the mid-April storms, State Farm said.
April 25, 2011
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