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St. Louis area, airport stunned by tornado

Debris from splintered homes covered the ground in neighborhoods around St. Louis, while topped trees and overturned cars littered lawns and driveways. From the air, one home looked like a dollhouse whose roof had been lifted off. Looking down, the dining room table and other contents could be seen, damp in lingering rain.

Officials appeared awed that the tornado that roared through the area Friday night, striking the airport and several nearby suburbs, hadn't seriously injured anyone.

"It almost feels like a little bit of divine intervention when you look at the devastation," said Gov. Jay Nixon, who flew over the area to survey the damage.

Nixon said President Obama pledged federal assistance Saturday during a phone conversation. About 750 homes in the St. Louis region were damaged, and less than 100 were uninhabitable, the governor said.

Cleanup swung into full gear Saturday. With the din of chain saws and pounding hammers in the background, homeowners sifted through wreckage while crews scrambled to restore power to the 26,000 customers still without it.

At Lambert, workers boarded up windows and swept up glass in the main terminal, where the twister tore off part of the roof and blew out half of the large, plate-glass windows.

The airport reopened Saturday night for a handful of arriving flights, and officials expected about 70 percent of flights to operate as scheduled early today. The damaged concourse was likely to remain closed for up to two months. "We're not going to have the prettiest airport tomorrow, but we will have an operating airport," Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge, the airport director, said Saturday.

Insurance adjusters converged in nearby Maryland Heights and Bridgeton, where roofers were going door to door to offer free temporary repairs.

"It's crazy -- like something you'd see in a movie," Tim Kreitler, 27, said as he helped a neighbor clean up in Bridgeton.

A spokeswoman for Southwest Airlines Co. said one of its planes was damaged when the wind pushed a conveyor belt for loading baggage into it. Southwest -- the biggest carrier at Lambert, with 85 departures per day -- canceled all St. Louis flights through 4 p.m. Saturday. American Airlines, which operates out of the heavily hit main terminal, said four of its planes were damaged, two of them significantly. American canceled 51 flights Saturday, five dozen today and its first seven Monday morning.

Hundreds of travelers were delayed, and a dozen who stayed in the terminal Friday night were given pillows and blankets, Hamm-Niebruegge said.

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

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