Strength, Survival, & Support: Remembering the "Good Friday" Tornado, Ten Years Later
The evening of Friday, April 22, 2011 began as any other Friday in Maryland Heights. As residents went about preparing for their weekend and sat down for dinner, a storm cell 120 miles southwest of Maryland Heights was developing into what would become one of the most devastating tornadoes that would impact our community.
At 6:57 p.m., the tornado sirens were activated by St. Louis County Emergency Management, a common sound for Missourians during storm season. Local news stations followed the super cells on their trek through St. Charles County. After reports of a tornado touching down in New Melle, the sirens were activated again about forty minutes later. As residents took shelter in their basements and the most inner-facing rooms of their houses, emergency personnel prepared themselves for what was to come. Sergeant Jeff Swatek was patrolling the area that evening with a Citizen Police Academy ride-along. "We took cover under the car wash overhang at Dorsett and McKelvey," he recalls.
Retired dispatcher Cindy Sampson remembers the calm before the storm hit. "We were told that a funnel cloud was spotted at the Blanchett Bridge. After that, we watched the camera footage of the parking lot. The flags went from blowing one direction to another and we planned to run into the bathroom to take cover, if needed." The tornado sirens were activated once more at 7:59 p.m.
For the next couple minutes, an EF4 tornado with wind speeds topping at 165 mph swept through Maryland Heights' northern residential neighborhoods, with the heaviest damage occurring in the Rose Acres/Voshen Park and Brookside subdivisions. "I heard the train whistle they always mention," recalls one resident, Shaun Wolz.
The first of many phone calls received by MHPD's dispatch was at 8:03 p.m. reporting that a house on Josephine Marie had been hit and residents were trapped inside. "The phone calls just started pouring in," said Sampson. "It was insane. All we could do was keep taking phone calls - everything from people trapped to reports of gas leaks. Every single line was ringing."
Sergeant Swatek made his way up McKelvey to respond to the hundreds of emergency calls but was stopped by two large trees that had fallen on the road. "Residents from the area came out with chainsaws and started working on clearing the road," he stated. "It really showed how much the community came together that night."
There were fourteen police officers and two dispatchers on duty that evening. As the dust from the tornado settled into a dark and rainy evening, twenty-nine additional officers and four more dispatchers made their way into work. "While some officers were called in directly, many of our employees voluntarily responded from their residences or secondary employment before being called out," stated Chief Carson. At 8:50 p.m. a Code 1000 was activated, requesting additional support from other municipalities. This resulted in forty-one officers from sixteen different agencies responding to Maryland Heights to assist throughout the night.
Several Public Works employees had also responded on their own accord that night. "Staff did a fantastic job," said Steve Schenck, Public Works Operation Manager. "We had eight employees work Friday evening until 2:00 a.m. and ten employees work all through Saturday removing trees from the roadways." Clean-up took approximately three months to complete. "We were very fortunate to receive assistance from several municipalities" Schenk adds. Eighteen roll-off dumpsters were placed in neighborhoods which collected 231 tons of debris (equal to 462,000 lbs!). The growing mountain of chipped wood stationed near the Maryland Heights Centre was a testament of the 10,744 cubic yards of vegetative debris collected.
The community quickly mobilized to help affected residents with basic needs. The Red Cross established an emergency shelter at the Maryland Heights Centre. "We had shut down all our programming and had our facility opened for twenty-four hours as a shelter and collection site," remembers Jennifer VanDyke, Recreation Manager. "Neighbors were helping neighbors." Churches, schools and other organizations collected donations of food, clothing and various supplies.
"The 2011 tornado may have battered the landscape of our city," stated Mayor Mike Moeller, "but it also revealed that the spirit of our community is stronger than any of us imagined."
"I rebuilt, but I'm still petrified when I see the forecast of one coming our way!"
Photo credit: Resident Sheila Barclay
"We only had minor cuts/bruises and were thankful to be alive."
Photo credit: Residents Licameli Family
For tips on what to do during a tornado, click here for safety tips.
Photo credit: Maryland Heights Police