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Tornado: One year later

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Past coverage of the 1999 tornado

William J. Alder describes Aug. 11, 1999, as one of the worst days of his life.

Like everyone else in Salt Lake last year, the head meteorologist for the National Weather Service's Salt Lake regional office was caught off guard by the tornado that swept through the city that day.

"We didn't have zip of a lead ahead of time to do anything," he said. "The forecasters . . . we weren't really keen to it. F2s (tornadoes) don't happen around here. It was kind of a freak thing."

The tornado plowed through Salt Lake City at 12:45 p.m. and spent nearly five minutes grinding a five-mile path across the city in a northeasterly direction.

Swirling winds of 113 to 157 miles per hour first plopped down near 200 South and 1000 West. The storm bounced off buildings and a convention tent in the downtown business district, and then touched down at the State Capitol grounds before slipping down into Memory Grove, where it whirred like a blender. Finally, the powerful funnel shot up out of the canyon and ricocheted off homes in the Avenues before running out of steam in the hills that overlook the city.

A year later, forecasters know more about what happened that day and why, Alder said.

Southern winds converged with winds off the Great Salt Lake and mixed with a summer thunderstorm from the Oquirrh Mountains.

"When you have that, you just start to circulate," Alder said. "What we had was an ascending (tornado) not a descending one."

Radar detectors mounted at Promontory Point near Brigham City didn't initially identify the storm, although a ground-mounted unit at Lagoon, which measures wind sheer, did. That data were not available to forecasters that day. Not that it would have mattered.

"It would have given us only about a minute more," Alder said. "I'm not sure what people would have done. (They) might have gone outside to see if they could see it and we may have had a much greater loss of life."

Only one man, 38-year-old Allen Crandy of Las Vegas, a participant in the outdoor downtown convention, died. Some 120 people suffered injuries that ranged from scrapes and bruises to broken bones that have taken months to heal.

More than 300 homes and public buildings suffered an estimated $150 million damages.

A handful of homes were left uninhabitable.

Most noticeably, the tornado altered the Salt Lake landscape by toppling hundreds of trees. On the Capitol grounds, nearly 100 were lost. In Memory Grove, more than 400 were ripped from the soil and 75 were damaged. Another 306 public trees were either lost or damaged. The estimated financial loss of the trees is over $2 million.

But as such disasters go, the Salt Lake tornado was mild, federal officials say. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has spent only about $660,000 helping Utahns recover. The Small Business Administration awarded just $260,000 in loans. Because President Clinton declared a disaster area, an additional $87,000 will also be available for disaster-prevention work, but that money has not yet been spent.

"There are two things that stick out in our minds regarding this disaster," FEMA spokesman Jim Chesnutt said. "One, how the community immediately responded. I can think of no other instance where I arrived on the scene within hours and so much was already under way in terms of cleanup. And two, your community also showed some real vision in terms of insurance. Much of the damage was insured."

The state emergency response plan went like clockwork, officials added. The only major problem was communication. Cell and land phone lines were jammed, preventing both private citizens and emergency responders from making necessary calls. Since then the state has reworked its communication plans, incorporating text pagers and cultivating a relationship with ham radio operators, both of which will improve disaster-time communications.

"Tornadoes were not in the state emergency plan, but they are now," said Earl Morris, director of the state office of Comprehensive Emergency Management. "The reality is that we are now better off than we were a year ago. We were able to use this an opportunity to springboard some of the lessons learned into our plans for the Y2K changeover and for the Olympics."

Over the past year, FEMA officials have used Salt Lake as an example to other communities numerous times, Chesnutt said.

"Our push right now is to work with communities to find ways to protect themselves from these disasters," he said. "That part of your heritage, the way you responded, is something we hope will catch on nationally."

That spirit of community has been at work over the past 12 months in planning for the restoration of Memory Grove. Led by Salt Lake City's director of public services Rick Graham, a group of residents, city staff and experts from agencies like the Department of Natural Resources and Red Butte Gardens, have been crafting a plan that will not only restore what was lost but make improvements to the park.

The $6 million plan allows for new plantings of trees and shrubbery, new pathways, restoration and repairs to the east and west staircases, new lighting, new irrigation systems, interpretive signs and other additions that will make the park more enjoyable and more usable for everyone, Graham said.

The first phase of the plan, a major tree-planting planned for late fall, will utilize the more than $860,000 in donations collected from private citizens, service organizations and businesses around the state to get the first phase of the plan under way, he said.

"It's a good plan. You'll start to see the park going back to what it was like and it will be fun to watch it develop over the next 10 years," he said. "It's a very unique park. A memorial park but also a park that has a lot of historical significance. It's still a very beautiful place that has meaning for people."

But the grove and the city, and the people who survived the tornado, will never be the same.

In the Avenues, the smell of fresh paint lingers in the air at LaMar Smith's Avenues home. In his kitchen, light pours in through three skylights and glints off the polished handles of new oak cabinets. At the far west corner of the house a new, larger bedroom has been built. All of it courtesy of a remodeling job started by the tornado.

"I had the first house on the block. I think (this) house is nicer than the house I had before," said the 80-year-old retired developer and engineer who led the original survey crew that plotted out this neighborhood in the late 1940s.

When the tornado hit, Smith's 18th Avenue home was almost completely destroyed. The wind ripped away the roof. The wall of the living room caved in. Glass shattered everywhere and kitchen cabinets were ripped apart at their hinges. A backyard aluminum storage shed literally disappeared and several pine trees, planted by Smith more than 35 years ago, were snapped into pieces.

Standing in his roofless living room that day, Smith cried. His life and memories were scattered with the wind.

"I didn't expect to see as much as I saw," he said earlier this week. "It was like a bomb had gone off."

At 80, Smith thought he had been handed most of the tough cards life had to offer. He had worked hard. Reared five children. Lost a wife to illness. He has battled heart problems and a stroke. While rebuilding his home in the months following the tornado, his second marriage crumbled.

He never counted on a tornado.

"He's a survivor," son Kevin Smith said of his father. "He's taken each challenge with dignity and grace. He hasn't been bitter. He has been a good example of courage and the ability to survive hardship."

LaMar Smith cries again as he talks about the losses of last August and the year of rebuilding, which was delayed by upgrading the foundation to accommodate new building codes for earthquake protection and electrical hazards. Some finish work on the house has yet to be completed.

"I've learned to appreciate what I have," he said quietly. "I worked hard and I turned out to be successful and I appreciate that. I guess I could be more spiritual and say something about God, but I'm more practical. I guess it's the engineer in me. I am thankful for my children. They have guided this restoration well."

E-mail: dobner@desnews.com