Restoration & Renovation Lambert Rebuilds After Suffering Direct Tornado Strike

Ronnie Garrett
Published in: 

Last April, the Lambert-St. Louis International Airport (STL) took a hard shot to the chin when an EF4 tornado ripped through its historic domed concrete terminal, leaving a mass of destruction in its wake. But what could have been a knockout punch instead inspired a hard-fought battle to survive and improve.

The tornado touched down at 8:10 p.m. on Friday, April 22, along Lambert International Blvd., taking out roadway signs and everything else in its path. It then cut a swath through the airport's four-level parking garage, damaging more than 1,000 vehicles, before veering directly into Terminal 1, where it blew out more than half the structure's floor-to-ceiling arched windows. The storm continued on, striking the C and D security checkpoint before moving along the C Concourse corridor.

Preliminary assessments estimate the damage at $30 million.


Project: Tornado Restoration & General Renovation

Location: Lambert-St. Louis Int'l Airport

General Renovation: $70 million

Tornado Restoration: $30 million

Construction Management: KWAME Building Group

Architect: exp U.S. Services

"Our C/D checkpoint wasn't too damaged, but the tornado landed at the throat of the C Concourse and cut a path through it, destroying most of the interior," reports Airport Director Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge.

The storm ripped off one-third of the C Concourse's roof and destroyed concession areas, restrooms and dozens of HVAC units. Adding salt to the wounds, it also dismantled work that crews had recently completed as part of STL's $70 million airport-wide renovation initiative known as the "Airport Experience Program."

"We had just started work on Concourse C and had completed about 20 percent of the project, and then the storm came through," relates Mike Minges, senior vice president KWAME Building Group, the firm providing construction management for the Airport Experience Program.

Recognizing the airport's importance to the community, Hamm-Niebruegge knew STL had to hit the ground running in the storm's wake and put its disaster plan to the test. "We review our plan periodically and do tabletop and full-size drills annually," she notes. "But when you actually have to use it, it's a little different than the textbook example."

Assembling an emergency response team was one of the first orders of business. STL's team included: airport personnel; key representatives from the city, county and state; and engineering and construction crews engaged with the Airport Experience Program.

"By 9 p.m. we had 100 to 150 people helping clean up debris and glass, and boarding up windows," recalls Hamm-Niebruegge. By Sunday, the airport was back in business.

Almost a year later, STL celebrated another milestone when officials reopened its C Concourse, which suffered the worst of the storm's wrath.

"We had our grand reopening on April 2 - 20 days shy of the storm's one-year anniversary," notes Hamm-Niebruegge. "Reopening the C Concourse put us at about 80 percent complete on the tornado restoration. There is still work that remains, but in less than 12 months we went from being shut down and heavily damaged to having a restored and greatly enhanced concourse."

Open for Business

The hours immediately following the tornado were a flurry of activity. "It was a real team effort, where everyone who could help pitched in and coordinated with the airport's response team to get things done," says Minges.

The team split into groups to assess damages in their specific areas of responsibility - airfield, terminal, climate control systems, etc. "They reported back the damages, the temporary outlook for repair, and the longer-term outlook for repair," Hamm-Niebruegge relates.

Vendors, including principal Airport Experience contractors such as KWAME and architect/design firm exp U.S. Services, played a key role in cleanup. Workers used plywood sheets set aside for temporary construction walls in concourses A and C to board up windows. "We worked around the clock for about 48 hours to get Terminal 1 completely dried out and glass frames filled with plywood," Minges recalls.

Construction workers also quickly repaired a large hole in the airfield's perimeter fencing, which helped enable STL to reopen its airfield at 12 p.m. the very night of the late-evening storm. "Having the airfield open and being able to land planes is different than operating out of your terminal," specifies Hamm-Niebruegge. "But we were able to land cargo aircraft on Saturday and a couple of private planes, including the governor's."

With one problem solved, crews quickly moved to tackle the next. And it was a doozy. Given the amount of damage, it was clear the C Concourse would be shut down for months. Airport officials consequently identified temporary use of their retired B and D concourses as the quickest way to resume operations.

"Though they had been closed for some time, we knew we could reopen them," says Hamm-Niebruegge, noting it would take a few days.

Airport officials summoned employees and contractors to install carpeting, paint, restore moving walkways and reopen restrooms in the needed concourses. Then they moved affected airlines in. Frontier Airlines and AirTran Airways began operating out of the B Concourse, while American Airlines and Cape Air moved to the D Concourse. "It is impressive that they were able to move flights from Concourse C to B and D within just two days," notes Thomas Hoepf, FAIA, vice president and principal design architect at exp U.S. Services.

Next, airport management teamed with the power company to get STL's two transformers back online. "We felt if we could get them up and running on Saturday, we could take arriving passenger flights that evening on Concourse A, which is about 30 percent of the traffic out of the airport, and then in Terminal 2, which is about 40 percent of the traffic," Hamm-Niebruegge explains.

The airport, in fact, reopened Sunday morning at 4:30 a.m. "We had boards up on the windows and temporary walls in place to hide damage, but we reopened and completed about 70 percent of the traffic on Sunday," she reports. Once carriers moved to the B Concourse, the airport hit 89% capacity, and on Monday when the D Concourse opened, the airport was back at 100%.

The heavy lifting needed to restore the C Concourse and Terminal 1 took much longer.

Hamm-Niebruegge summarized the scope of tornado restorations at an airport commissioners meeting in June 2011: "The structure [C Concourse] is intact. The roof has to be replaced and even the membrane has to be replaced. That is critical. We're trying to get that out to bid because we need to be under a new roof before we can start construction."

Other key restoration projects included replacing windows in Terminal 1, repairing glazing on the building's exterior, installing lighting and repairing retail and concession spaces. STL paired the tornado restoration work with ongoing construction for its Airport Experience Program. Phase I of the $70 million renovation initiative designed to create a "cleaner, brighter, friendlier" environment was already complete when the storm hit, and Phase II had just begun earlier in the year.

Phase II plans include:

• New lighting, wall and ceiling finishes, and column covers with programmable LED column caps in Terminal 1

• Relocating the C Concourse checkpoint to accommodate new passenger screening equipment

• A new glassed in atrium to connect ticketing and lower levels

• New baggage claim restrooms and renovation of existing restrooms throughout Terminal 1

• New ticket counters and terrazzo flooring on the upper-level ticketing hall

• Enhanced signage and directories

• New terrazzo flooring, wall tile, countertops and sink fixtures in concourse restrooms

"We were in the midst of all of these renovations when the tornado hit the building," says Michelle Bear, AIA, exp U.S. Services associate senior project manager. "Any airport project is complex, even without a tornado. But it takes real leadership to stay on track with that in the mix. STL's management was very proactive in recognizing and solving the challenges the tornado presented."

To enhance coordination of the $30 million tornado restoration and $70 million planned renovations, airport officials convinced the airport's insurance carrier, Lexington Insurance Co., that the renovation program manager, KWAME, should also oversee construction for the tornado repairs. The insurance company agreed, and KWAME brought in additional crews to manage restoration efforts and work with its existing Airport Experience Program team. "We were able to completely coordinate the work we were already doing and the restoration," says Minges. "This helped considerably in getting work completed."

Although the tornado damaged completed work, Minges says the Airport Experience projects haven't been delayed as much as some might expect. Before the storm, crews performed construction at night to keep the A Concourse operational during the day; but when the C Concourse closed after the tornado, construction proceeded day and night. "We didn't have to phase in the flooring work, for instance, because the public didn't need access; so we did the entire floor at one time," Minges says. "We progressed very quickly, once we were able to start working again."

Construction couldn't resume, however, until Lexington Insurance completed its damage assessment and the roof was repaired. "The first thing we did is contact our insurance carrier, and they came out that weekend," recalls Hamm-Niebruegge.

The airport also retained an engineering firm to assess the damage; and the insurance company did the same. It took two months for both firms to identify the damages and create a timeline for associated repairs and the costs. "The two firms came very, very close in their assessments," notes Hamm-Niebruegge. "That was great, because it allowed us to start moving forward. We didn't have any issues with 'We're not going to cover that,' or 'You are way off base' or 'That was damaged before the storm.' "

Realizing that the tremendous scope of both projects would require open communication, STL organized weekly meetings with the insurance company and other key players. In May, the weekly meetings were still occurring. "It's been a very smooth and open process," reports Bear. "We meet weekly and walk side by side through the airport, reviewing what's complete and what's currently being done. Everyone has worked really well together."

Hamm-Niebruegge credits STL's openness with Lexington Insurance as the primary reason restoration efforts proceeded so quickly. "Lexington even cash-flowed the project," she explains. "They've already issued $20 million to us. (The payments) came in increments of $5 or $10 million, so we weren't paying for work then waiting for reimbursement."

Officials also recognized the importance of keeping the public informed as STL navigated the restoration and renovation processes. They launched an extensive public relations effort that tied into the existing "See It Through" campaign established for the Airport Experience Program. Banners and posters throughout the airport proclaimed: "We weathered the storm: See it Through." Airport staff also issued regular press releases on restoration and renovation progress to local media outlets.

Back to the Future

The renovated C Concourse includes amenities that were not originally slated for the Airport Experience Program but were added during the tornado restoration.

For example, after the storm ripped up retail outlets and restaurants, the airport encouraged its concessionaires to take advantage of the blank slate and develop new offerings. HMSHost and The Paradies Shops took the opportunity to inject some St. Louis flavor into STL's concession and retail offerings. In addition to bringing in a local beer brewery's Schlafly Tap Room, they also expanded an existing Starbucks store, added a Mediterranean restaurant and revamped retail offerings such as STL's former Brooks Brothers stores.

The Airport Experience Program had already tapped into the work of local artists, but the restoration project enabled STL to expand those efforts to include five triptych glass screens and a large terrazzo floor inlay for the C Concourse entrance.

All of the work combines to create a gleaming new concourse with a "fun feel," says Hamm-Niebruegge. "When we opened, most people thought the concourse had been torn down and totally replaced," she notes. "We had to tell them that this was the original structure with an entirely new look."

Most of STL's remaining work will occur outside the terminal building, including the repair of exterior glazing and eventually a new domed copper roof. The majority of the tornado restoration is expected to wrap up toward the end of summer, but Airport Experience renovations will continue until next year.

The end result, says Minges, will be "an example of great cooperation among the airport, the engineers, the contractors and skilled construction trades to do the right thing and get both jobs done simultaneously."


When Disaster Strikes

Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge, airport director at Lambert-St. Louis International, offers the following tips to other airport officials faced with wide-scale restoration efforts:

• Contact your insurance carrier immediately. Bringing insurance representatives in as soon as possible gets everyone on the same page.

• Set up regular meetings between the insurance carrier, key airport officials, and construction, engineering and architectural contractors. "It would have been a very daunting task for us if we didn't have weekly interactions," she recalls.

• Be willing to compromise or postpone work until everyone is in agreement about what needs to be done. "If we had issues we didn't agree on, we waited. We didn't tell the contractor to go ahead and sort it out with insurance later," she notes. "We took the time to discuss the issues and come to an agreement first."

• Ask the insurance company to cash-flow the project instead of waiting to be reimbursed in a final settlement check.

• Work with the media. Use the news outlets to your advantage to tell the airport's restoration story. "You need to have the community behind you," she notes. "It helps to get your story out to the public so they know what's going on."



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