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Powerful twister spares lives in St. Louis Tornado's winds reached 200 mph

The St. Louis area's most powerful tornado in 44 years rips into an airport and through a densely populated suburban area, destroying up to 100 homes, shattering hundreds of panes of glass at the main terminal and blowing a shuttle bus on top of a roof. Yet no one is killed, or even seriously hurt, and the airport reopens less than 24 hours later. How?

Early warnings, good timing and common sense all helped prevent a tragedy Friday night. But on Easter Sunday, many of those cleaning up the mess also thanked a higher power.

"I don't know why God decided to spare our lives but I'm thankful for it," Joni Bellinger, children's minister at hard-hit Ferguson Christian Church, said Sunday.

Lambert Airport reopened for arriving flights Saturday night, and departing flights began Sunday morning. Still, dozens of flights have been canceled, the airport's Concourse C is still closed and complete repairs could take up to two months.

The tornado peaked at an EF-4 level, second-highest on the Enhanced Fujita scale, packing winds of up to 200 mph, National Weather Service meteorologist Wes Browning said. It was the most powerful twister in metropolitan St. Louis since 1967 -- and eerily, it followed a path similar to that of the earlier tornado.

Entire subdivisions were destroyed. Cars were tossed about like toys, roofs tossed hundreds of yards and 100-year-old trees ripped out by the roots. Gov. Jay Nixon said 750 St. Louis-area homes were damaged, with up to 100 of them uninhabitable. The damage clearly will cost millions of dollars to repair, but a more precise estimate was unavailable Sunday.

The twister destroyed two of the homes John Stein owns on a street in the city of Berkeley, and damaged five others.

"Everything you'd find in a war zone except the bodies," Stein said.

Residents in nine communities and unincorporated parts of St. Louis County were still sorting through the rubble Sunday. Ameren Corp. had about 2,000 workers seeking to restore outages that affected 47,000 homes and businesses immediately after the storm. The utility said 18,300 were still without electricity on Sunday, and it could be several days before all power is restored.

Yet the common refrain was: It could have been worse. Stuff was destroyed, not lives.

Residents praised the weather service for warning them about the tornado more than a half-hour before it hit.

They also paid attention to the sirens, and local TV stations switched from network programming to radar of the pending disaster and stern warnings from meteorologists to seek refuge in basements.

Bridgeton Mayor Conrad Bowers believes divine intervention also was at work. His own home had moderate damage, but several houses in his neighborhood were obliterated. In many of them, mercifully, no one was home when the twister hit.

"The grace of God," Bowers said. "What else can I say?"

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