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Weeks after tornado tore through Ferguson and Bridgeton, people are still picking up the pieces

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 20, 2011 - A small collection of items waits now at the Bridgeton Community Center: a photo of a smiling little girl with silver-blonde hair, a 70s-era portrait of a man with chunky sideburns, a small 5-by-7 wedding album, a beaded necklace, a religious statuette. And there's a death certificate.

In Ferguson, another pile waits in the public works garage lot, filled with limbs and trunks that made up the once-great trees here.

The items in Bridgeton were found during the ongoing cleanup from the April 22 tornado that tore through parts of Ferguson, Bridgeton and Lambert-St. Louis International Airport and left parts of both cities in pieces. The pile in Ferguson has grown steadily since then, too, with community cleanups and the help of neighboring cities.

In both places, they're signs of things lost and found after the storm.

The Long Haul

Each day, from her windowed storefront on Natural Bridge, Dianne Hofmeister sees truck after truck pass through the streets of Bridgeton.

"I watch them all day driving by, dragging the trees off," she says.

Hofmeister, a Florissant resident, owns Hollywood Blonde Salon and says about six trucks a day pass by. After the tornado, she offered free shampoos to anyone displaced by the storm. No one came in for one, but it was the first thing she could think to do.

In Bridgeton, the people driving those trucks she sees, along with the street department, the public works department and the maintenance crew were, until the end of last week, working 12-hour shifts, says Walt Siemsglusz, director of parks. As of last week, he said they'd picked up 1,400 tandem loads of debris.

"It was overwhelming the first week."

As soon as a truck cleared a street, they'd turn around and look back, he says, and people would have filled their front yards again with debris from the back.

In all, he says, 34 houses and seven businesses had severe damage, 70 houses and two businesses had moderate damage and 406 houses and 26 businesses had minor damage.

Bridgeton had the help of Service International, based in Chesterfield, organizing volunteer clean-up.

At Hollywood Blonde, Hofmeister still sees the trucks each day. Now, more than three weeks later, things aren't yet back to normal.

"It's going to take a long time," she says.

City of Blue Tarps

In Ferguson, Linda Lipka always felt if there was a way to repay her community, she would. After the tornado, she got that chance.

Three years ago, Lipka's daughter died in a car accident. The support of her community meant a lot to Lipka, her husband and son, she says. She also grew up in Alabama and has lived through tornado devastation.

"I know what it feels like to have your life exactly as you know it one minute, and the next minute it's gone."

When the mayor contacted her and asked if she would head up organizing the community, she stepped right up. Soon, Ferguson resident Jeff Aherns called and offered to work with her.

Lipka, who owns a DJ company, and Aherns, who works for Boeing, held the first community clean up one week later. She figures about 300 people helped over the two days.

Like in Bridgeton, though, things aren't yet normal in Ferguson.

"We still have the blue tarps," says city councilman Dwayne James. "So it's not back to normal."

Along with local residents and businesses, Ferguson got help from all around the metro area, including numerous area public works departments, police departments and fire departments, with people coming from neighboring cities as well as Lincoln and St. Charles counties.

Because cleanup is ongoing, says James Knowles III, Ferguson's mayor, there hasn't yet been the chance to sit down and look over the entire event to evaluate how things went. However, he says, citizens took the storm warnings seriously and took cover, and after the storm, area police sent officers in to help secure streets and go door to door to make sure everyone was OK.

"Overall, I've been very happy with the response, both from the city and the citizens," he says.

Last week, FEMA set up an office in Ferguson. Knowles says he hasn't heard any complaints from residents or neighboring communities. FEMA will help reimburse the city for a portion of the clean-up, and that is enabling the city to pick up debris that's put in the right of way along the streets and sidewalks.

Right now, James says, between 30 and 50 houses have been tagged as unoccupiable and residents are staying with neighbors or extended family in the area.

"But everyone I've talked to is basically wanting to stay."

Still Looking

At the Bridgeton Community Center, Vicki Ventrella is surprised that the small collection of found objects doesn't contain more.

Early on, she thinks, everything found just got thrown away. But for those things residents have found and turned in, like the wedding album and the death certificate, she plans on setting up a Facebook page. Hopefully, it will help a few people get a small piece of their lives back after losing so much.

But now, each item seems like a mystery.

"You don't know," says Ventrella, recreation supervisor, "you don't know who it's from."

She's also keeping track of where the items were found, so when they are claimed, owners can see where the tornado took them.

The debris collected daily in Bridgeton is being piled up at an undeveloped park, Siemsglusz says. Eventually, the city will rent a tub grinder and grind it all into mulch. He says a city engineer projects that the amount of mulch will be the size of a high school football field, including the end zone, stacked 26 feet high. The mulch will most likely be thrown away.

In Ferguson, the pile at the public works garage will also get mulched, or hauled off, depending on the size of the limbs. Lipka, always the business woman, would like to see that mulch sold at the Ferguson Farmers' Market.

Last week, FEMA announced federal money would be made available to state and local governments following President Barack Obama's major disaster declaration for Missouri on May 10.

In both cities, how quickly homes get fixed depends on insurance, James and Siemsglusz say. All around there's much left to do, James adds, but he also has a little perspective after deadly tornados hit the South just a few days later.

"You just realize a little bit more that you were very, very fortunate. You were very, very blessed" he says. "so we're praying for them, because we know what they're going through."

Kristen Hare