RISING FROM THE RUINS

CEDAR PARK, Texas (FNS) -- May 27, 1997 started like most other spring days here -- sunny, hot and humid.It was hardly ominous. But by afternoon, the sky had turned dark and the wind picked up. Larry Fore, manager of the 10-month-old Albertson's in this small community, didn't think much of it. Springtime in Texas is prime thunderstorm season.But then Albertson's employees spotted a tornado spinning

CEDAR PARK, Texas (FNS) -- May 27, 1997 started like most other spring days here -- sunny, hot and humid.

It was hardly ominous. But by afternoon, the sky had turned dark and the wind picked up. Larry Fore, manager of the 10-month-old Albertson's in this small community, didn't think much of it. Springtime in Texas is prime thunderstorm season.

But then Albertson's employees spotted a tornado spinning far off in the distance, coming down and then retreating back into the clouds, only to come down again. Soon it was bearing down on the store.

Fore could hear the wind blowing as he escorted employees and shoppers into the refrigerated coolers in the rear of the store -- advice that rescue officials credit with saving many lives.

The tornado touched down in the center of the store, cutting a path through it, caving in the roof and leaving a pile of debris. When he stepped out, "it looked like an explosion," Fore said.

Although most of the store was flattened, the checkout stands and the produce section were left intact, with some of the fruit still perfectly stacked after the winds had died down. One person was seriously injured, and a dozen received minor injuries in the store. They didn't find out until later that the tornado had touched ground to the east in the small town of Jarrell, killing 27 people. To a newcomer, it would be hard to imagine that this now bustling store was a shambles only a few months ago.

But Nov. 19, less than six months after a tornado ripped its roof off, the Albertson's store in Cedar Park reopened for business, just in time for the Thanksgiving shopping rush. "The community was looking forward to getting us back," said Fore, an 18-year Albertson's veteran.

Mayor Dorthey Duckett said Albertson's, one of only three food stores in the area, had been missed.

"I'm delighted to see them open again," she said. "It's another sign [that] no matter what happens, we just keep going."

Almost everything in the store is new, except for the meat cooler, where shoppers and employees huddled at the height of the storm.

Only the front and back walls are left over from the original 55,000-square-foot store.

"We virtually started over except for the foundation," Fore said. A Seattle's Best coffee bar has been added at the front of the store, where customers can get a cup of espresso while they shop. The "Quick Fixin' Ideas" prepared-foods section, in the front of the store, was tripled in size.

Employees who lost their jobs because of the tornado were offered jobs at 15 other stores in the Austin area. Albertson's also provided optional crisis counseling to its 125 employees. Many were traumatized by the disaster.

About 40 of the store's 125 employees returned when the store reopened. However, most had found other jobs in the interim.

Thomas Huckstein, a produce clerk who suffered a severe head injury when he was buried for three hours underneath the collapsed roof, has returned to work on a part-time basis.

The new store is bigger than its predecessor, with several new features, Fore said.

"It gave us a chance to update a little bit," Fore said. "Things change from week to week in this industry."

Fore said he doesn't know the dollar amount of the damage. He does know that the rebuilt store is doing more business than the original, a fact he attributes to the improvements added to the new store.

"We're taking care of customers like we did before," Fore said.