ST. LOUIS, Mo. – Not many Americans realize that St. Louis was once America’s third most important city. After the White House was burned to the ground during the War of 1812, St. Louis (which suffered an earthquake of Biblical proportions in that very same year), was almost named the U.S. capital.

Because of its location on the Mississippi River, St. Louis historically has been a commercial trade center. Lewis and Clark headed west on their Voyage of Discovery from St. Louis. St. Ferdinand’s, the oldest church in the entire Louisiana Purchase territory, sits in Florissant, known as “The Valley of the Flowers.” It was here that the Belgian priest Peter John DeSmet, the legendary “Black Robe” missionary to the American Indians, was ordained.

The Mississippi also made St. Louis a center of Harriet Tubman’s infamous underground railroad. African-Americans first came en masse to St. Louis after the Civil War. They had been promised free land in Kansas, but those promises never materialized. The 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair is still considered the greatest such fair ever held. As everyone knows, Charles Lindberg’s aviation achievement via “The Spirit of St. Louis” changed the world forever.

At the dawn of the 21st century, St. Louis, while in great decline, still remains a vibrant American city. Consider that Florissant is the home of Miss USA Shandi Fennessey. There’s the Gateway Arch, America’s tallest monument, Marlon Perkins’ Wolf Sanctuary, one of America’s finest (and free) zoos, Anheuser-Busch, Ralston-Purina, Boeing’s state-of-the-art fighter jets roaring over I-170 and Monsanto’s “brave new world” of genetically engineered foods.

Yet on July 19, 2006, St. Louis virtually ground to a standstill in the face of a freak storm that terrified residents and paralyzed the city for almost five days. A weak front moving down from Iowa into Indiana set the stage for a microburst of rapidly moving, cold air, which in turn created conditions for “The Perfect Storm.”

On that Wednesday night, it suddenly became very dark around 7 p.m. This writer walked outside just as the storm hit. Various items were blowing here and there. Twenty-foot-long branches crashed all over the lawn as though mere twigs. The temperature dropped 20 degrees in one hour. The tornado sirens were howling. Winds were approaching 90 miles per hour. The accompanying thunder and lightning were a page torn out of the World War I battlefield of Verdun.

As the storm moved through the St. Louis metro area, landline phones, television, electricity, gas stations, supermarkets and the Internet were suddenly taken out of the public domain. What emerged was a world that Tubman and DeSmet might well have recognized. The city’s main utility company, AmerenUE , was simply overwhelmed by the emerging crisis.

Even in the exclusive St. Louis suburb of Ladue, the residents had to contend with fiery transformers, the sound of fire engines and police racing across the city day and night, cold showers, warm beer and sleepless evenings in cooler basements. Freezers defrosted and dishes had to be done by hand. Ice sold like hot cakes. People read books by candlelight. Neighbors who barely spoke to one another suddenly found themselves organizing impromptu block parties.

That’s the thing about the weather – it’s something everyone has in common.

Around the city, more than a few residents had to be treated for carbon monoxide poisoning after using generators. At the Cardinals baseball game, 75 people on hand when the storm hit had to be treated for injuries. Vendor carts came undone and crashed into game watchers. Some fans were treated at first aid stations at the new Busch Stadium while others were sent to the emergency room at the local hospital.

Apparently, the new Busch Stadium has severe drainage problems. One stadium worker was seen bravely swimming in a section of seats behind home plate to unclog a drain. The storm took everyone by surprise. The Cardinals are known to be “family friendly,” and the many children in attendance at the game must have been truly scared by what unfolded.

Yet we are used to extreme heat and cold in St. Louis. On Thanksgiving morning of 2005, we awoke to temperatures in the teens – something near 15 degrees Fahrenheit without the wind-chill factor.

In the wake of last week’s storm, people were kind to one another. This gave me hope, thinking of a possible (future) terrorist attack and what that might do to St. Louis. Much like the British, St. Louis residents always seem to unite in a crisis. This is nothing short of miraculous in a city seething with racial and class hatred. Our city is known to be a welcoming and friendly place filled with people who have big hearts. There are scores of Bosnian immigrants who survived an epic “long march” to freedom with their very lives at stake. There are also Cambodians who worked through every single day of “Year Zero” under the Khmer Rouge and lived to tell about it. For them, the “Storm of the Century” was merely a blip on their personal radars.

The cleanup process after the storm took place in heat that stood at 95 degrees even at 6 p.m. The humidity was stifling. (It was Hong Kong meets Phoenix). Consider that around 600,000 people had no power at one point.

This whole unfolding scenario was one of the major stories on July 21. On that Friday, a second powerful storm hit St. Louis, a mini-Rita after a mini-Katrina. Boeing had to send home 4,000 defense workers. The National Guard was called out by Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt. The 1138th Engineer Battalion worked valiantly to clear fallen trees and get the city up and running again. Sadly, several brave, even heroic AmerenUE employees were killed or injured while operationally deployed in the clean up phase.

In the wake of the damage caused by St. Louis’ “Storm of the Century,” one Ladue resident succinctly summed things up by saying, “I suppose we’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.”

But then again, when you live in St. Louis, you don’t need to be.

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