With hard work, helping hands, and a lot of love, Jefferson City businesses and neighborhoods are rebuilding one year after the tornado.
Looking through her office window, Mayor Carrie Tergin can still see boarded-up windows and tarp-covered roofs on the buildings surrounding City Hall.
“The first thing I did was I prayed,” Carrie says, recalling her first actions after receiving the news a tornado had hit Jefferson City.
May 22 will mark one year since the catastrophe unfolded.
“It’s what you never want to happen,” Carrie says. “You never want to see your city, your citizens, your community in this type of situation, but you realize that you don’t even have time to think of how you’re going to react. All you can do is say we’re going to figure this out, and you do.”
Within minutes of the tornado’s passing, first responders jumped into action, nonprofit organizations set up shelter, and city officials addressed the public to begin a recovery plan.
From sunrise on May 23 and through weeks after the tornado, companies came from surrounding areas to help clear debris and fix electrical lines; local restaurants gave out food, and volunteers worked tirelessly to get supplies to distraught families.
“I’m really beyond proud to see what we’ve done and how strong we’ve been as a community. We continue to take care of each other, and we are in for the long term to see success for everybody,” Carrie says.
In total, the tornado damaged more than 400 homes, 72 businesses, and 31 government buildings.
While there are several buildings still left untouched, Historic City of Jefferson president Donna Deetz is looking forward to working with the River City Habitat for Humanity to rebuild four homes on Jackson Street, which were heavily damaged in the tornado.
The HCJ and the Habitat for Humanity have been working together to ensure the homes reflect the historic neighborhood. To help this effort, Donna, along with many volunteers from the HCJ, have collected items from other historic homes that are too damaged to restore.
“We could only go into homes that we were invited to go into, but we went through and pulled out doors, windows, claw-foot tubs, bookcases, and pieces that were put together back 75 to 100 years ago that can be used in other historic buildings,” Donna says.
On top of the five homes already planned for completion in 2020, River City Habitat for Humanity created a “blitz build” project for the properties on Jackson Street to help accelerate recovery efforts.
“We have already selected the families who will eventually purchase these four brand-new homes on Jackson Street. When all is said and done, 18 people will have a safe, affordable place to call home because of this blitz build,” says River City Habitat for Humanity executive director Susan Cook-Williams.
“When we surprised the families selected for this blitz build, there were so many tears of joy!” she adds. “One family in particular — a mother, a father, and their four small children — were so excited. We showed up at their door with balloons and a hard-hat basket to congratulate them and let them know they were selected. The mother screamed and then fell into my arms, crying tears of joy and relief. Then the four children started coming up to me, hugging my legs and telling me thank you. When we eventually left, we hadn’t even left their driveway before the whole household started screaming with joy. It was a beautiful moment that I will never forget.”
In addition to affordable housing, there are also multiple businesses expected to reopen before the years’ end.
“It took nine and a half months to settle with the insurance company on the Chevrolet Buick GMC Cadillac building,” says Riley Auto Group president Kevin Riley.
The Riley family has been a part of the Jefferson City community since 1936. As the tornado hit the dealership, it not only piled dozens of cars on top of one another but tore through the building, leaving only 10% of the original structure, located at the back of the store, remaining.
Despite the excessive damage to their business, the team quickly developed the mentality of #RileyStrong.
“#RileyStrong means we’re stronger together than we are individually. It recognizes that each employee and customer is a member of the Riley family. It’s so much more than the name on the dealership — it is a reminder to be grateful for each other and to strive for excellence, even when facing adversity,” Kevin says.
After a year of having their dealerships divided, Kevin and his staff are ready for their reopening, now set for August 1.
“Customers often ask us at our Chevy dealership, ‘When will things get back to normal?’ Naturally, we look forward to having the Riley Auto Group back together on Christy Drive, with the GM dealership at the same address as Riley Collision Center and next to our sister store, Riley Toyota, which both have been in operation for months,” Kevin says. “And of course, a brand new building with space for everyone will be great. But we are most looking forward to a new kind of normal, welcoming more people into the Riley family as customers and employees, and growing our business so that we can continue to give back to our community,” Kevin says.
For the new Special Olympics training facility in Jefferson City, it was the community that gave them an overwhelming amount of support from day one.
“The morning after the tornado, we started getting calls from volunteers and people in the community, asking what we needed. By 10 o’clock the next morning, we had already secured an office space to move into, a warehouse to put stuff, and a truck to haul all of our stuff that needed to be moved out,” says Missouri Special Olympics President and CEO Susan Stegeman.
The one-of-a-kind training campus, which offers a special health and wellness wing to accommodate their programs for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, had only been open for seven months before the tornado literally came tearing through their front doors.
On the first day of recovery, the facility had between 150 and 200 volunteers on site. From then on, volunteers from local high schools, businesses, banks, police departments, and Mizzou athletics teams came pouring in to help until the building was ready for reconstruction.
“Even staff from Special Olympics Arkansas came up and helped us,” Susan says. “We were overwhelmed, but it was such a good feeling of overwhelmed that we just knew we weren’t alone, and we also knew that there were so many other people hurting in the community.”
There are 16,000 Special Olympic athletes in the state of Missouri, with about 1,200 athletes planning to be served at the campus. Since the training campus has been closed, due to the reconstruction and the COVID-19 pandemic, the program transitioned into alternative programming featuring athletes leading athletes, with many creating videos on stretching, health and wellness tips, positivity, and setting goals.
The building is expected to be completed sometime in May, but Susan says she and her team are also looking forward to the Specials Olympics outdoor competitions that will be held at the facility beginning September 25.
But there are still many buildings, such as Avenue HQ, where rebuilding within the first year isn’t possible. “The problem came about in working up the complicated estimate while we had several major rains that caused the structures to deteriorate and fall. By the time we were able to get to a conclusion, the buildings had taken in so much water we had no choice but to demolish them,” says owner Holly Stitt.
Avenue HQ and the businesses beside it became the first damaged structures on East Capitol Avenue to be demolished. Thankfully, because Holly had loss of income insurance, she was able to get her leases paid out. And she was able to lean on her neighbors for support.
“My accountant is on the corner of Marshall and Capitol, and they lost their building. My neighbors behind me lost their home, and we have been watching out for each other for years. The neighbors to the west had spent all that time bringing 615 [Capitol Avenue] back to life just to have to do it all over again. It was a tough time, and we all relied on each other to get through it. I have always been a big believer that nothing happens by one person. It takes many to make good things happen,” Holly says.
Despite having lost her buildings in the storm, Holly is determined to remain in high spirits and looks forward to what the future holds.
“With the last building coming down, it finally allowed us to move on and get excited for the future,” Holly says. “It has been a tough year with the tornado, Nathan’s [Holly’s husband] father passing away, hail damage on our house, and COVID-19 affecting our business. But you know, we will get through it, and the future has to be great. We have some exciting plans for The Shoe Factory that we have been working on, and getting things lined out for that has been fun. It lets us dig into a new project and have fun with it. Things are looking good, and we will be keeping on. After all, we are #JCSTRONG.”