National Guard evacuates St. Louis residents after storms knock out power during heat wave

Published 10:59 pm Friday, July 21, 2006

National Guard members fanned out through darkened city streets, clearing debris and looking for residents who needed help evacuating their sweltering homes after storms knocked out power during a deadly heat wave.

Carrying bottled water and cookies for those needing quick pick-me-ups Thursday, guardsmen joined firefighters, police and volunteers in searching primarily for elderly residents living in the city’s older brick homes that one health official likened to a furnace in the summer.

Gov. Matt Blunt called in the Guard the same day the city was declared a disaster area after storms and power outages that affected 500,000 customers. The city was the latest to suffer from a heat wave that has baked the nation this week, contributing to at least 22 deaths in 10 states.

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The city got a meteorological punch: a massive storm that knocked out power followed by another day of near-triple-digit heat.

The forecast for Friday offered hope. The high was expected to reach only the upper 80s, with another round of thunderstorms possible. Forecasters expect the milder weather to continue into next week.

Among the Guardsmen helping was Sgt. Ralph Zahner, who spent part of last year in Iraq, then helped out in the Gulf Coast after hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

“So this is nothing new,” said Zahner, 38, a 21-year veteran of the Guard. “We’re glad to help.”

Utility companies were still struggling to restore power. By Thursday evening, electricity had been restored to 160,000 customers in St. Louis, but new reports of outages kept coming in. The day’s high temperature was 97 degrees, but the humidity made it feel like 111.

The evacuated residents were taken to “cooling centers” after leaving their homes.

“We can’t overemphasize the danger of this heat,” Mayor Francis Slay said. “The longer the heat goes on and the power is out, the riskier it is.”

Utility workers urged customers to find a cool place to stay. St. Louis-based AmerenUE, which serves Missouri and Illinois, warned that power could be out for some customers into next week.

Around the region, people began cleanup from Wednesday’s storms that brought 80 mph winds and heavy rain. In St. Louis, the storms tore off a section of airport roof and dumped it on a highway. Windows were blown out of a hotel restaurant and a press box at baseball’s Busch Stadium. At least three buildings collapsed, and more than 30 people were injured.

Then there was the heat.

John Swapshire, 39, grabbed the next-to-last window fan at a hardware store for $14.99. The electricity at his home was out, but he had a gas-powered generator.

“I had to go to six stores to get this. They were either closed because of the electricity or sold out,” Swapshire said. “I don’t think you can buy a cube of ice in all of St. Louis, either.”

Stanley Shelton, 53, found a cool spot under a tree in a downtown park where piles of broken limbs and branches covered the grass.

“I’ll just sit in my yard with a big jug of water and wait for it to pass,” Shelton said. “Maybe I’ll take a couple cold showers. That works too.”

Hospital emergency rooms and city health clinics reported a large number of people complaining of heat-related illnesses.

The heat has contributed to at least 22 deaths across the country, including a 93-year-old St. Louis woman who had air conditioning but no power.

Medical examiners were determining whether the death of a 92-year-old Independence man whose air conditioning had stopped working was heat-related, and an East St. Louis, Ill., man died while walking near downed power lines.

Other deaths were reported in Illinois, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Indiana, South Dakota, Tennessee, Kansas and Wisconsin.