For about an hour Wednesday night, powerful winds pummeled trees, houses and cars in Washington County, cutting off power and phone lines and leaving tons of broken branches in their wake.
As of this morning, a half-million Ameren customers were without service, including 10,823 in Washington and Iron counties and 7,200 in St. Francois County, said Mike Cleary, Ameren spokesman.
&#8220It’s a major, major, major storm,” he said. &#8220The worst storm we’ve had in company history.”
Ameren called for help from independent contractors, but by mid-morning the company still had no estimates for restoration of electricity. Lines were still down all over Potosi, and fallen trees still blocked some roads this morning.
Washington County Memorial Hospital remained in service with a generator. By midnight, they were getting people in with injuries from the storm. Potosi police had received a report that a woman and her 18-month-old baby had been rescued from their basement, where they fell after the lights went out. However, a spokesman for the hospital said they had no patients who met that description.
Some sections of town near the hospital reported they had electricity this morning.
Washington County Courthouse was closed today, although it had electricity from a generator. City Hall was overseeing cleanup that began Wednesday night and the Washington County Health Department was contacting restaurants that had lost power. The power had been out long enough to pose a health risk from spoiling food.”
&#8220We have do to emergency inspections of the restaurants,” Washington County Heath Department Administrator Judith Wright said. &#8220People should use common sense about foods in their homes.”
Wright spent the morning setting up emergency cooling centers. Weather predictions called for a heat index of more than 100 degrees.
Residents also are asked to conserve water, Mayor T.R. Dudley said.
&#8220The major water tank for our system is down for repairs,” Dudley said. &#8220It is being painted inside and out, so there is no way we can get it back up right now. Water pressure already is low.”
The city is pumping water from another section of the county to a water tank near the Elks Club, and that will provide water to most of the town, at least for a while, he added.
The storm began in Washington County with strong winds about 8:30 p.m. that quickly escalated. Several minutes later, a thunderstorm hit the area and winds began snapping branches off the trees. By 9 p.m., thick branches and treetops were toppling onto houses, vehicles and roads.
&#8220In all my years, I don’t think I’ve ever seen such heavy winds for so long,” said Woody Lawson. &#8220That wind easily had to be blowing 50-60 miles per hour, and probably more.”
According to the National Weather Service, winds up to 92 m.p.h. were recorded, with the high being recorded in Hillsboro.
Lawson is a storm spotter for the National Weather Service. When he heard reports that a storm was headed south from St. Louis, he and his son headed to high ground on Missouri 21 near Route E. They noticed a dark cloud dropping toward the ground, but it did not appear to be spinning. Unsure whether it was a tornado in the making, Lawson snapped some photos. When the wind slammed their truck, the father and son headed down the hill to a family member’s home on Nicholson Road. Lawson remained in his truck as the storm raged.
&#8220There were limbs flying, swimming pools, garbage cans – anything that wasn’t tied down,” he said.
The storm died down about an hour after it began. Neighbors around town headed outdoors with flashlights to gauge the damage to their homes, yards and streets. Driving around Potosi was like finding one’s way through a maze. Trees blocked streets, wires hung to the road, and branches lay everywhere.
Missouri Street was blocked by trees at Clara and Oak streets. Police Capt. Mal Gum kept people away from the tree at Clara and Missouri streets. The tree was entangled in a utility line, and it was not clear at first if it was an electrical line. City worker Sam Johnson arrived with tree trimmer Brian Harbison. After determining the tree had pulled down a cable or phone wire, the two men cut up the tree and moved it from the road with the help of Gum and several neighbors.
Streets were dark, punctuated only by headlights of curious drivers and pinpricks of light from flashlights as residents walked outside to assess the damage.
The trailer of a semi-truck lay overturned in the Wal-Mart parking lot. Inside, staff were scrambling to protect perishable items from damage. Managers were too busy shrink-wrapping coolers, meat counters and freezers to talk. But staff guarding the front doors said that after the electricity went out, they had herded the 50 or customers to the lay-away section in the back of the store. There, they drank water and chatted while the storm raged outside.
Ten city workers, armed with chain saws and other equipment, headed into the streets in bulldozers and trucks. They worked until 2 a.m., then the full crew of approximately 20 employees returned to the streets at 5:30 a.m.
&#8220We’ve hired someone to start dealing with the major trees that are down,” Dudley said. &#8220We are asking citizens to bring their debris to the curb. Don’t put it in ditches, as we expect more rain tonight.”
Residents are advised to stay away from downed limbs that are tangled in wires.
&#8220Never go near any type of downed line,” Ameren spokesman Tim Fox said. &#8220Always assume it’s activated.”
Ameren called out all its crews and available contractor crews. The company also requested assistance from utility companies throughout the region.
&#8220We do appreciate our customers’ patience during this critical time,” said Richard Mark, senior vice president, AmerenUE Missouri Energy Delivery. &#8220We are working closely with city and state officials and emergency response personnel to coordinate restoration efforts and ensure customer safety. Work will be continuing around the clock.”
By mid-morning, cooling centers had been set up in several areas.
One cooling center is the main fire station, located on Jefferson Street. People who are suffering from the heat are welcome to head to the station for relief, Dudley said.
Wright was busy setting up other temporary shelters throughout the county.
&#8220The elementary school building on P Highway has air conditioning in part of the building,” she said. &#8220People can also go to the Richwoods Lions’ Den and the hospital and handicapped center are taking in high risk patients and residents. The health department is open, especially to the senior citizens who live in the neighboring apartments.”
St. Joachim school was trying to set up a cooling center, she added. Wright said the Farmington Civic Center could serve as a long term emergency shelter if necessary.
&#8220Check on your elderly neighbors,” she suggested. &#8220If you need to get out of the heat, head to one of these centers.
Wright said that the worst of the damage was on the hill behind Missouri Street in Potosi. Although the Wal-Mart area had electricity this morning, Wright and other city officials had no idea when the rest of the town would have power.