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Air traffic resumes at tornado-hit St. Louis airport

By the CNN Wire Staff
  • NEW: Airport director says she's pleased with traffic resumption
  • NEW: Four airlines are being relocated from a damaged concourse
  • The governor says it's astounding that there were no deaths or life-threatening injuries
  • Friday's storm system damaged 750 homes, the governor says

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See more on the story from CNN affiliates KMOV, KSDK, KTVI and KPLR.

(CNN) -- Flights resumed Sunday at the main airport in St. Louis after a tornado struck, knocking out power, shattering windows and sending passengers scrambling for cover from falling debris.

A handful of incoming flights touched down at Lambert-St. Louis Airport Saturday night for the first time after the powerful tornado hit Friday night. Airport spokesman Jeff Lea said Sunday morning that outgoing flights had resumed and were running on schedule.

Airport director Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge told reporters the airport's goal was to reach 70% of operations Sunday, and "I think we're there."

She said Southwest Airlines reported they are at 100% operation with no cancellations at the airport. Carriers on the airport's A Concourse were at about 80%, she said.

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Four carriers were being relocated from C Concourse, which suffered the most damage, with about half its windows blown out. Of those four, AirTran Airways and Frontier Airlines were both at about 50% in their new home on B Concourse, and planned to be fully operational Monday.

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On Monday, the airport's D Concourse will be opened to house American Airlines and Cape Air, Hamm-Niebruegge said.

As of Sunday afternoon, more than 100 flights had departed from the airport, she said. On an average Sunday, about 230 flights leave, she said, and "we still have a good portion of the day to go."

The twister left behind "an incredible trail of devastation," the National Weather Service said.

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Hamm-Niebruegge said that looking at the damage Friday night, she never would have believed the airport could be open and receiving flights so soon. She said Saturday it could take a "couple of months" to fully repair the damage.

"We think tomorrow is going to be a very, very busy day," she said Sunday afternoon.

Preliminary estimates show that a tornado packing winds between 111 and 165 miles per hour hit the airport, said Wes Browning, a chief meteorologist for the weather service, Saturday.

The tornado damaged 750 homes near the airport, Gov. Jay Nixon said on Saturday. There were no fatalities reported.

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It's "absolutely amazing" that it tore through an airport and highly populated areas and there were no fatalities, Nixon said. "We're talking property, we're not talking about loss of life because of this. That is nothing short of astounding."

Shelters were set up and other assistance was offered to the many families affected by the disaster, said Charlie Dooley, the St. Louis county executive.

"The look in their eyes (shows that) they think their life has been completely destroyed," said Dooley, urging volunteers to come out and help. "Folks, that is devastating."

Besides damage to home and the airport, the strong winds also hit businesses and tore through the roof of a Ferguson church, where dozens had gathered on Good Friday to watch the movie "Passion of the Christ."

"We felt this vacuum, and then there was so much noise," said congregant Nancy Doggett.

They came up later from the basement to see the ceiling smashed in the sanctuary. Two large Christian crosses remained intact despite the tornado.

"To have this kind of damage, we're just glad no one was hurt," minister Stacy Garner said on Saturday. "Buildings can be replaced, but lives cannot."

In the city of Bridgeton, just northwest of the airport, Mayor Conrad Bowers had high praise for emergency workers, who he said conducted door-to-door searches after the storm hit. He said weather officials told him the tornado in Bridgeton was an EF-4 with winds of about 170 mph.

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In all, 65 structures were rendered "totally uninhabitable," said Police Chief Donald Hood. More than 200 other homes were damaged, some severely, he said. Seven commercial properties were destroyed and 35 sustained "substantial damage."

Bowers recounted a story of a couple who went to their basement when the sirens sounded. The man told his wife he was going to go upstairs for a belt, he said, and came back down to report, "There is no upstairs."

Officials said inspections of buildings will take several days and hauling off debris will take longer.

CNN's Phil Gast, Greg Botelho, Carly Costello, Marlena Baldacci, Taylor Ward and Greg Morrison contributed to this report.