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Amazon warehouse where 6 died is nearly rebuilt but won’t have storm shelter

Workers attempt to clear debris as part of a search and rescue operation on Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021, at an Amazon Distribution Hub in Edwardsville, Illinois. Violent storms, some producing tornado activity, ripped through the Midwest on Friday night, killing at least two in the warehouse.
Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Workers attempt to clear debris as part of a search and rescue operation on Dec. 11, 2021, at an Amazon Distribution Hub in Edwardsville, Illinois. Violent storms, some producing tornado activity, ripped through the Midwest on Friday night, killing at least two in the warehouse.

EDWARDSVILLE — The Amazon warehouse where six employees died in a tornado a year ago Saturday is nearly rebuilt.

Amazon spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said Friday there’s “a lot of emotion tied up this weekend” remembering what happened.

“It's just a really sad, somber time,” she said. While Amazon leadership doesn't know exactly when the new warehouse will open, Nantel said it won’t have a shelter. Critics questioned why the old warehouse didn’t have better safety measures and wanted changes in the new one.

Federal guidelines from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and local building codes don’t require a shelter, Nantel said. Instead, she said Amazon is taking other steps to keep employees safe such as training them on how to respond to extreme weather, and it hired a meteorologist.

“We want to go above and beyond in the areas that we have the most control over and the most confidence that they would make a difference,” Nantel said. “And so, while that building is not being built with a storm shelter, that doesn't mean that conversations aren't being had.”

The meteorologist proved to be useful during hurricane season in the South this year, Nantel said.

Amazon leases the warehouse that was destroyed. The owner is required to return the facility to its previous condition under its contract with Amazon. For the most part, it will function the same as the old building.

Pictured from the road, the newly rebuilt Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, Illinois that was decimated by a tornado in December 2021.
Will Bauer
/
St. Louis Public Radio
An Amazon spokeswoman said the warehouse where six employees died in a tornado is nearly rebuilt, though Amazon leadership doesn't know exactly when the new facility will open for business.

Edwardsville’s code for buildings, however, will change in 2023.

Fire Chief James Whiteford, who helped coordinate the response to the tornado’s destruction, said that while the new code doesn’t include a storm shelter, the city adopted the 2021 International Building Code.

Under the new regulations, the warehouse’s walls need to withstand winds of 114 mph for three seconds, Whiteford said. Under the old rules, the walls needed to withstand 90 mph. The EF-3 tornado last year clocked wind speeds between 136 and 165 mph.

“They are requiring the buildings to be built stronger,” Whiteford said. “But there's no provision I'm aware of to put in a storm shelter.”

Another change that’s being made involves replacing the Edwardsville fire department’s radios. The old radios presented a problem last year when batteries died, Whiteford said.

The first responders also weren’t able to communicate with the many agencies on scene with the old radios. New radios, which have been purchased by the city but haven’t arrived yet, will make the fire department better prepared should something similar happen.

Jeffrey Hebb weeps while speaking about Etheria Hebb, his 34-year-old daughter who was killed when an EF-3 tornado blew threw Edwardsville-based Amazon facility last month, on Jan. 27 during a demonstration at the Amazon DS-4 Distribution Warehouse in Edwardsville.
Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Jeffrey Hebb weeps while speaking about Etheria Hebb, his 34-year-old daughter who was killed when an EF-3 tornado blew threw Edwardsville-based Amazon facility last month, on Jan. 27 during a demonstration at the Amazon DS-4 Distribution Warehouse in Edwardsville.

Legislation and litigation

The Illinois House of Representatives passed legislation earlier this year that will create a task force to make it easier for workers to identify and report safety concerns or violations where they work. The bill’s lead sponsor, Rep. Katie Stuart, D-Edwardsville, said she expects it to pass the Illinois Senate and be signed into law by the governor early next year.

“I believe that every worker deserves a safe and healthy work environment and I am committed to being a champion for workers’ safety and well-being,” Stuart said in a statement.

STLPR reporter Will Bauer discusses this story on 'St. Louis on the Air'

Jack Casciato, an attorney for the family of Austin McEwen, one of the six people killed in the collapse, said his case will soon enter the discovery phase.

The lawsuit alleges the retail giant put workers at risk by ignoring severe weather warnings and insisting they work until minutes before the tornado hit the building on Dec. 10. Casicato said he expects to depose critical Amazon management in both Edwardsville and Seattle. The Chicago-based lawyer said he hopes the case can make it to trial by early 2024.

For Mary Kate Brown, deputy director of Madison County’s Emergency Management Agency, the goal is to prevent a disaster like this from happening again. But, with weather patterns changing, she said it seems like big storms are getting more common.

“We're talking about a tornado that happened in December,” she said.

Not only was the timing rare, but Brown said she hadn’t seen anything like it before. While previous flooding in the county has led to millions in property damage, last year’s tornado was Brown's first time dealing with multiple deaths since she joined the department in 2009.

“The amount of devastation was just kind of insane,” she said. “Compared to the other destruction and things I've seen from other storms over the years, it was definitely up there in terms of just the utter destruction that was done to the building.”

Whiteford, who started with the city as a firefighter paramedic nearly 27 years ago, said the tornado was also a first for him.

“It’s traumatic to deal with something like that,” he said.

Will Bauer is the Metro East reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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