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Your Gate: F4

With the tragedy in Joplin, Missouri this week, tornadoes have been front and center in the news

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With the tragedy in Joplin, Missouri this week, tornadoes have been front and center in the news. At the time of this post, the death toll in and around Joplin, according to the Associated Press, has risen to 132 while the list of people still missing hovers at 156. At the number seven slot, 2011 is rapidly climbing the list of the deadliest tornado years in U.S. history.

I got a firsthand sense of the convulsive weather that Missourians and others in the Midwest and South have been suffering this year when I flew to St. Louis last Sunday. Our American Airlines flight out of Washington Reagan National Airport arrived as scheduled at St. Louis Lambert International Airport at 7:40p.m. local time. The trip was smooth, sunny and uneventful until we began our descent. Passing through a layer of cloud at maybe 20,000 feet, the setting sun vanished, and it seemed we had waded into a dark lagoon. As we curved around on final approach, I got a view to the west where a wall of coal-colored cloud spanned the horizon, curved like an ocean wave about to break. Had we been 10 or 15 minutes later, I’m sure we’d have diverted.

I’d find out soon enough that this storm had unleashed an F5 tornado a couple hours earlier that leveled Joplin on the west side of the state.

Just hanging out: an airport van at Lambert, April 22, courtesy of the F4 twister. Photo: National Weather Service

Reaching my car just in time, I sat and watched a flashing sky begin spitting hail and spewing rain. The storm was all tornadoed out. But moments earlier, on the way to the rental lot in a van, I couldn’t help noticing the amount of plywood in the windows all around the airport, which apparently lost half of its glass to an F4 (technically EF4, for Enhanced Fujita scale) twister exactly a month earlier, April 22, Good Friday.

My driver described how he had been working on April 22 when rain drops the size of golf balls began to travel sideways in a 160 mile-an-hour gale. He said he started to really worry when he looked up amid the shrieking wind, and through his windshield saw a dumpster go past at what he estimated to be 90 miles an hour. He never saw it land. Somehow his bus stayed on the ground, but others, like the one at right, had closer calls.

With no fatalities, the St. Louis tornado didn’t get as much national news as the Joplin twister a month later. The details were news to me, though. Have a look at the following videos from April 22 for a sense of how a twister might get your adrenalin going at the airport.

A security cam:

And now for some sound, and a little more mayhem:

This guy talks about watching a commercial jet sliding across the concrete:

Lights out and lots of debris:

Boredom gets less boring in a hurry:

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