Growing up in the Missouri Bootheel, Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge lived through her fair share of twisters in the rural, southeastern most part of the state that is nearly synonymous with this type of weather activity.
Little did she know that the epic tornado of her lifetime would skirt her Dixie Alley childhood home to cause destruction at her future place of work, Lambert-St Louis International Airport.
“Certainly, the state is accustomed to tornadoes, but it has been a little while since we have seen a tornado actually hit in a populated area,” says airport director, Hamm-Niebruegge, of the fierce cyclone that hit her Missouri gateway at 8.12pm on Friday, April 22, 2011.
“As a kid, we lived through a lot of tornadoes, so it certainly wasn’t new to myself, and I think a lot of the employees here have lived in the Midwest a long time. However, we are not really used to seeing tornadoes touch down anywhere near the city, so this was quite a shock.”
To put things in perspective, it was the most powerful tornado to hit St Louis in nearly half a century and it touched yards from the airport’s original 1956 terminal building, which handles around 55% of operations at the gateway.
The destructive activity, rated as a violent Level 4 on the zero-to-five Enhanced Fujita Scale, caused upwards of $50 million in damages and nearly a year of disruption as airlines had to relocate to other parts of the airport to ensure that services could continue and more than 14 million passengers could be accomodated last year.
Upon the April 2, 2012, re-opening of Concourse C, which suffered the heaviest damage, Hamm-Niebruegge recalled the memorable Friday afternoon when the tornado struck.
“It was one of those days when the weather was on watch all day long,” says Hamm-Niebruegge, noting that many of the watches started turning into warnings around 6.30pm.
“All afternoon, this threat was hanging out there, and then there were some warnings in some of the outlying areas that funnel clouds had been sighted, but it took a quick, unexpected turn toward the end and it came pretty fast,” remembers Hamm-Niebruegge.
So quickly, in fact, that the airport was only four minutes into its evacuation process when the twister’s 135mph winds made impact with the terminal, blowing out windows and sweeping a large section of roof off of Concourse C.
Indeed, the terminal’s Concourse C was all but destroyed in the tornado’s path, meaning that AirTran, American Airlines, Cape Air and Frontier Airlines all had to find new ‘temporary’ homes at the airport.
With the airlines between them accounting for around 30% of the airport’s passengers, Hamm-Niebruegge knew that there was no time to waste, and personally led the charge to relocate them with expediency, while clearing damaged areas and reopening viable areas.
She was successful in her mission, as Lambert-St Louis re-opened the airfield at noon the following day to allow for inbound cargo flights to resume, followed by passenger services in the evening.
In fact, by 4.30am on Sunday the airport was almost back on track, handling 70% of normal schdeduled operations. The figure increased to 89% on Monday and, remarkably, by Tuesday, April 26,
normal service was resumed.
How was this possible? “We had shut down part of our Concourse D a couple of years before, and as this was undamaged, we decided to move the displaced airlines into it,” explains Hamm-Niebruegge, who notes that the airport could have returned to full operations even earlier if it hadn’t been for the need to make Concourse D operationally ready.
The bulk of the work to get Concourse D “up and running”, involved changing out carpet and painting and fixing restrooms, recalls Hamm-Niebruegge.
Once the airport was fully operational again, Hamm-Niebruegge tackled the long road to recovery, with the plyboarded over the windows of the main terminal serving as a visual reminder of the experience that was far from over.
“When the main terminal – which is a very historic, iconic terminal – was hit, we had 450 windows blown out, none of which were the same size,” says Hamm-Niebruegge.
“The structure was built in 1956, and had curtained wall at the time that was built for windows that were built for than era. Life is
much different today, and trying to get people to understand the problems we faced was difficult.
“All 450 different windows had to be specially made, for example, because none of them measured the same. There are also very different requirements on the type of glass that is allowed at airports today than nearly sixty years ago.
“We actually replaced all of the windows by December, and when we no longer had the plywood, that made a big difference.”
Plywood was one piece of it. Concourse D, where three of the carriers were relocated, was yet another.
“It was great to be able to have that space, but Concourse D wasn’t the most functional,” she says of the very narrow, one-sided facility that served as a substitute home for AirTran, American Airlines, Cape Air and Frontier.
“We really didn’t have the space to open large, sit-down restaurants like our customers want and were used to in Concourse C. It was a challenge handling 30% of our traffic in a complex with such limited facilities,” admits Hamm-Niebruegge.
She says that the experience drove her to work closely with the airport’s insurance company to ensure the necessary repairs to Concourse C were quickly approved and funded,
It was a mission that required a lot of co-ordination and effort, insists Hamm-Niebruegge.
“Every Tuesday morning at 9am, almost from the week after the tornado hit up to late March, there were weekly meetings with the insurance carrier and all of the contractors to make sure that the airport advantage of all the monies out there through the insurance company that they have approved along the way,” she says.
She also points out that the airport opted to issue more than 20 individual contracts to repair the airport with the help of a project manager from an outside company.
“We felt we could give more people in the region the opportunity to put people to work, and we had a better say so of the timeline and the constraints if we broke it up into smaller pieces,” she says.
“Thinking of all the work we had to go through before Concourse C re-opened on April 2, it has been a fascinating year.”
Hamm-Niebruegge said she expected impressive reviews of the new-look after nearly a year of repairs, which have complemented additional improvements that were already underway when the tornado struck.
“We were actually in the midst of a renovation that had been planned before the tornado hit,” she reveals, noting the airport had previously begun renovating the Concourse A and some of the interior of the domed ceiling.
“From the response of Concourse A customers, the new look and feel has been well received, and Concourse C will look very much like it.”
Hamm-Niebruegge describes the concourse as “very open and airy”, with bright ceilings, new lighting and terrazzo flooring versus carpeting everywhere.
A new terrazzo inlay medallion by St Louis artist Alicia LaChance, entitled ‘New Village’, features a burst of more than 40 colours, which is centered on the pathway of both arriving and departing passengers near the building’s entrance.
This art joins a series of locally sourced art glass screens that are the first commissioned works through the airport’s new Public Art and Culture Program.
She also praised La Tapenade Mediterranean Café and local brewery Schlafly Beer Bar and Grill, saying that they are just some of the airport’s “great” new shops and restaurants.
“I think customers will walk in and see a much different looking concourse,” enthuses Hamm-Niebruegge.
“I think people are going to feel really good that not only were we able to get this all done and re-opened after having business as usual – maybe not in the most attractive terminal, but still business as normal – and now we are coming out with a very attractive, high-end concourse that I think the community and our customers will be pleased with.”
She believes it will take additional months to finalise the calculations on the finished product, but the estimate of actual reconstruction is $35 million.
In addition, the airport projects from both the clean-up exercise and preparations to get Concourse D ready to re-open have an $8 million price tag.
The piece that has yet to be factored into the equation is the cost of the loss of business for the day and a half that Lambert-St Louis was effectively closed by the tornado, as well as ongoing losses
from the smaller and limited Concourse D venues, which in turn reduced the amount of revenue produced versus revenues produced on Concourse C.
Combining those calculations, it is going to be upwards of a $50 million price tag when it is all said and done.
Since the tornado, Hamm-Niebruegge said STL has had a terrific year with an 8% percent overall, year-over-year growth in traffic.
“I think that is due to the US economy getting better,” she said on the heels of a terrific March with lots of Spring Break activity, with a strong outlook for summer convention traffic.
“We are seeing some growth in the St Louis business market as well, so that has helped from a traffic standpoint. But we have been very, very pleased with the traffic and the loads out
of St Louis this past year, and we are seeing that trend continue right now.”
In short, Hamm-Niebruegge said the past 12 months of recovery have, “been an amazing feat and a year to remember.”