83 damaged but still hospitable
Total: $5.14 million
Total To Be Requested:
KSL-5 has produced a home video of the August 11 Tornado disaster from our 10:00 newscast that night and the tornado special that followed. Click here for more details.
The tornado took everyone by surprise, including the National Weather Service, which issued a severe thunderstorm warning just before the twister tore through downtown, ripping roofs off buildings and sending the lunchtime crowd running for cover.
Despite the short notice, locals had gloves and brooms in hand before the dark clouds had receded.
Earl Morris, who oversees the state's emergency management agency, said Utah residents typically respond to disasters with lightning speed.
"I think it's a local tradition. A lot has to do with the presence of the Mormon church, which preaches preparedness."
For decades, leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have urged members, which make up about 70 percent of Utah's population, to stockpile a year's supply of food as a hedge against the unexpected.
Before survivalism was popular, Utah companies sold food in 40-pound bags, 100-hour candles, and water storage barrels. And the church has a silo filled with 19 million pounds of wheat just in case normal distribution systems break down.
Those policies, which date to the state's pioneer history and have made Mormons famous for their head start on preparing for the Y2K bug, help when Utah is hit by natural disasters.
"We had dozens of people turn out just to help clean up," said Ronald Coleman, bishop of the First Capitol Hill Ward, the first residential area hit by the storm after it skipped through downtown.
The tornado gouged holes in historic homes, pulled up trees 100 feet tall and blew out car windows. An estimated 34 homes were destroyed, and 87 others damaged.
But church members were armed with a 50-page disaster booklet and a military-style plan for handling emergencies.
Coleman said each Mormon man in the ward, or congregation, is assigned four or five families to call or visit after a disaster. The plan then calls for them to check on other neighbors and report back to the bishop.
"They all did their checking and before everyone went to bed last night, the windows were covered and everybody was trying to help their neighbors," Coleman said.
Some members handed out tarps and fresh water; others formed roving crews to clear streets with chain saws; still others stood by at an apartment complex where the elevator was broken to help if an ill resident needed to be carried down the stairs.
Even Gov. Mike Leavitt, who surveyed the damage by helicopter soon after the storm, said he was struck most by the view into roofless houses.
"In every house that I passed, I saw not a few but dozens of neighbors to clean up," he said.
The effort cuts across denominational lines, said Ken Fiebig, executive secretary for the stake president. "There's no such thing as a non-member in an emergency," Fiebig said.
"You hope that if this ever happens to you, someone would be there to help," ward member Emily Watkins said as she cleared a neighbor's yard of debris. "But that's only part of it," she said, adding that the effort helps bring the community together.
Hours after the storm, city officials asked the church for tarps, ropes and tents. The church took the gear from a massive central warehouse it maintains for disasters.
The Red Cross asked LDS Family Services, the church's counseling program, for help working with residents.
"There's no question that the (Mormon) church is known for helping out in emergency situations," said non-Mormon Salt Lake City Mayor Deedee Corradini.
Leavitt declared the city a disaster area, but a request for federal assistance was waiting on damage assessments.
Jim Chestnut, spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said four assessment teams were dispatched and expected to start tabulating an official damage estimate Thursday night.
As the city shook off the effects of the deadly twister, weather service officials began examining their performance.
Forecasters normally rely on computers to interpret radar images and give an early indication that a tornado is likely. But in this case, said forecaster Mike Conger, the system didn't pick up the telltale signature of a twister until it was too late.
"There wasn't a lot of hard evidence prior to its development that would have given us a reason to go with a tornado warning," he said Thursday.
The weather service's alert called for high winds and the marble-sized hail that pelted the city. Tornadoes are rare near Salt Lake City, only about two a year occur statewide, and Corgan said forecasters don't have a lot of experience spotting twisters.
City and state officials said there was no indication the weather service had made mistakes.
"None of us ever dreamed there would be a tornado in Salt Lake City," Corradini said. "We have major thunderstorms here, and I think that's what we thought it was."