Two years later, memories are still fresh for tornado’s survivors

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The EF-3 tornado that formed around Eldon on the night of May 22, 2019, made a path of destruction that ran north along U.S. 54 and went into Cole County and Jefferson City. Authorities said 600 structures were damaged in Cole County by the tornado, but it was a “miracle” […]

The EF-3 tornado that formed around Eldon on the night of May 22, 2019, made a path of destruction that ran north along U.S. 54 and went into Cole County and Jefferson City.

Authorities said 600 structures were damaged in Cole County by the tornado, but it was a “miracle” that only a handful of people suffered injuries and no deaths occurred the night of the storm.

Two years later, the memories are still fresh for those who were in its path. For some, the signs of the damages inflicted on their neighborhoods is a daily reminder.

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The storm moved south to north, and among those taking a direct hit on the edge of Jefferson City was the Braun Auto Repair and Storage Facility on Renns Lake Road.

Earlier this year, they began working in their rebuilt facility. But Alan Braun said they still have more work to do.

The tornado hit the repair shop and all 11 buildings on the Braun complex, destroying three of the Braun Storage units and the auto shop itself. Only 33 percent of the facility was left standing after the twister.

“We’ve been buying things to complete what needs to be done, but a lot of those items are not ready,” Braun said. “Construction materials are on back order.”

Braun said they have two storage buildings that have to be built, but how soon those get done depends on available lumber and other supplies that have been tough to find during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The construction industry is busy, but we are hopeful we’ll be winding things down in the next six months,” Braun said.

One of those contractors was Doug Schrimpf, who had tools stored in buildings at Braun’s when the storm hit.

The tools were scattered in the debris of the buildings. He retrieved his tools and started working. Right now, his crews are working to rebuild a home damaged by the tornado in the 500 block of Capitol Avenue, and he still has buildings at Braun’s to rebuild.

“We were and are still swamped with projects,” Schrimpf said. “Most of them are little projects, but I tell people we may not get to some of them until sometime next summer. With just five of us, we do what we can.”

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For Special Olympics of Missouri President/CEO Susan Stegeman, the events of that night were “surreal.”

“I got a call from a co-worker who rattled off what was going on and said the campus was a mess,” Stegeman said. “We don’t live far from the campus (located on Special Olympics Drive which is just off Christy Drive). And when we pulled up, there were no lights. But what we could make out looked like a battle zone.

“I remember stepping over our flag pole that had been snapped in half and that’s when it hit me how much damage there was,” she said. “If it had hit in the day, it might have been a lot different with potential injuries. So being that it hit at night with no one there, we were thankful nobody was hurt.”

Stegeman also remembers it didn’t take long for the support of the community to be felt.

“By the light of day, we had a place to move to for temporary offices on West McCarty Street,” she said. “People came out from all over — MU sports teams, construction workers and other volunteers — to help us move. We didn’t put out a cry for help; they just showed up.

“It was overwhelming because there were a lot of others hurting, but everybody rallied around anybody who needed help and made things happen,” Stegeman added.

Last June, SOMO was fully moved back in and operational on its campus.

“We were only able to hold one camp before the tornado hit because the COVID pandemic shut down events last year. So it wasn’t until the end of March of this year that we were able to do some events,” Stegeman said. “The first major event since the tornado that we’ll host will be in June when we hold selection camps for the USA Games in 2022.”

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Less than a week ago, Riley, Buick, GMC and Cadillac reopened in its permanent location.

The facility on Christy Drive was closed for nearly two years after the tornado destroyed the building. The Riley Toyota facility, which is down the street from the Buick store, didn’t suffer as much damage and was back up and running about six months after the tornado.

Between the two dealerships, owner Kevin Riley estimated more than 770 new and used vehicles were totaled.

Riley said he didn’t think it would take this long to complete the work on the family business.

“I thought it would be 10-12 months,” he said. “The slow part was working out details with the insurance company, and that took about a year.

“We’ve created a facility that’s 95 percent new and different in the whole layout of the operation,” Riley added. “We’re 40 percent bigger than the old facility.”

Throughout the past couple of years, Riley said they have focused on having a positive attitude.

“We’re grateful for what we have,” Riley said. “We’ve been blessed in many ways. These are the challenges you get in life — and you deal with them.”

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The late night timing of the storm meant commercial buildings were largely vacant when the destruction occurred. But the buildings weren’t vacant and the impact was very individualized when it hit Hawthorne Park Apartments on Ellis Boulevard.

Community Director Kimberly Knosel said 144 units were damaged within 18 buildings of the complex. They did not replace nine of the buildings that were damaged by the tornado. Those buildings housed 72 apartments.

“The ones that were still standing have been under construction and renovation,” Knosel said. “We took them down to the studs and put in brand new plumbing, electric and other items.

“There’s 70 remodeled, brand new apartments,” Knosel said.

Knosel said getting to this point has been slow, but they anticipate getting keys to renters in August.

“We’re already getting people signed up now,” Knosel said. “We’re redoing our pool and clubhouse, too, and they’ll be done later this summer.”

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Click below to hear a podcast of News Tribune reporters discussing their recollections of covering the tornado’s aftermath on the one-year anniversary in 2020. 

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As the storm left the more commercialized sector off Ellis Boulevard, its path took it into residential neighborhoods.

The damages inflicted, as well as the progress in rebuilding, has been very individualized.

Most houses in the Mesa Avenue and Holiday Drive area have been repaired, including Susie Stonner’s home on Mesa Avenue. Her home had roof damage, a shed destroyed and windows blown out.

Stonner said she was able to fully repair her home in only about two weeks after the tornado, and the only remaining work is to buy and plant new trees in her yard to replace the ones she lost.

She and her neighbors now have a clear view of Jefferson City High School that was once blocked by trees.

Most of the houses in the neighborhood had their roofs replaced and don’t have visible outside damage, but some of Stonner’s neighbors on Holiday Drive are still working on repairs.

Across the street from Stonner is a vacant lot where a house used to be but was demolished after the tornado.

A couple houses down from Stonner is a basement and porch steps, the remnants of a house that was directly hit by the tornado.

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A few houses down from Stonner’s on Holiday Drive is Chris Leroux’s home. There is no visible outside damage, but he is still working on repairs.

“Two years later, it’s still going on,” Leroux said. “We’ve still got things to do.”

Leroux, a paramedic at the University of Missouri, was working a night shift the night of the tornado after a bright, sunny day.

“My wife, Jan, had called me and said, ‘Oh, my god,’ we had a tornado,'” Leroux said.

He rushed home to see debris everywhere — tree branches in his driveway, a tree laying across the road, and a giant tree on top of his house that had fallen through the roof and into his living room.

“It was just crazy,” he said. “It looked like a war zone.”

The heavily damaged areas of his house — the siding, living room and roof — have been repaired and remodeled. But there’s still work to be done, like re-installing the deck, finishing up the downstairs area and kitchen, and renovating another room entirely.

“It’s just ongoing,” Leroux said. “We needed to do stuff anyway, but the tornado kicked it up into high gear.”

The rebuilding has been slower for Leroux and his wife than many of their neighbors because their insurance company was reluctant to help them, he said.

“It seemed that the insurance company that we had seemed a little bit hesitant on reacting,” he said.

He said he never thought it would take more than two years to finish the repairs, but it is a costly process.

“That kind of thing just elongates it,” he said.

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Story continues below related video

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Rose Griffin had never been through a tornado in her life, but fortunately the damage to her home on Jackson Street, where she’s lived since 1960, was minimal compared to others in her neighborhood.

The worst damage was her chimney being knocked over, but it fell forward into the front yard instead of going backwards and into the roof of the home.

“The worst part about it was that it hit on the eve of my 67th birthday,” Griffin said. “It was a birthday to remember.”

One of Griffin’s neighbors lost their home after having just sold it.

“People had to leave their homes because they lost power and had to move to shelters,” Griffin said. “We didn’t have to leave, but we did, and we had family living here to help.

“The best thing was that neighbors came together to make sure that everybody was alright,” Griffin added. “We didn’t lose anybody, and that was amazing. Everybody has done what they can to come back together.”

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John Kleindienst didn’t own the Jackson Street house when it was severely damaged by the tornado, but he owns it now, and he’s busy trying to rebuild it.

“It was partially gone when I got it, so I tore the rest of it down,” he said. “The foundation was still pretty decent, but we found it had cast iron plumbing which had corroded. And the basement was leaking. So I filled the basement area with shot rock and am making it a slab home.”

As they were tearing things down, Kleindienst said, they found several items that told the history of the house.

“We’ve been able to determine this house was built around 1920, and it had a one-car attached garage for a Model-T car,” he said. “At the time it was built, it was a stately home. Being able to park a car inside was a big thing.”

Although he has the majority of the concrete work done, Kleindienst said he doesn’t plan on finishing the rest of the home until the prices of lumber come down.

“I haven’t decided if I’ll rent this out or not,” Kleindienst said. “I’ve been working on this since last fall.

“In a normal situation, we’d be done with all the work in six months,” he said. “But with the way the prices for materials are now, it’s not worth it.”

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Check out our past tornado coverage from the immediate aftermath through the one-year anniversary.

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On Capital Avenue, the tornado caused irreparable damage to the former Avenue HQ complex on 619, 621 and 623 E. Capitol Ave., the venue’s office space and Campus Coworking Space.

Owner Holly Stitt had no choice but to demolish the buildings.

Stitt also owned two houses around the corner of Avenue HQ that she was restoring when the tornado hit them. One of the houses was demolished, but the other is almost completely restored.

He had been renovating the Avenue HQ building since she bought it in 2012.

“(We) had put a lot of work, a lot of sweat equity into it, so it was a pretty rough blow to lose it all in one night, and I think it just took us a while to wrap our head around it,” she said.

One of the biggest challenges was the standstill where they couldn’t start anything during almost a year of debates on whether the Campus Coworking building needed to be demolished, she said.

Stitt said she needed to take a break from the project. Now she has to start from scratch on it, but they are now brainstorming ideas for what to rebuild in the space. She has decided it’s not going to be a venue again, and it will probably be art-related.

“I just started having some meetings with some folks and deciding some things that could be there that would be a benefit to the community because I really, truly believe that everything up here needs to be a benefit to the community,” Stitt said.

She said she hopes to start breaking ground within a year after coming up with a concept.

Stitt said it’s nice to see more and more progress being made in the area as buildings are restored.

“I’m glad to see that two years later, we’re finally starting to get some recovery,” she said.

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At the former Campus Coworking Space, the tornado ripped a large portion of the roof off, left interior walls askew and caused major damage to much of the furniture, fixtures and electronics.

After only being open for five months, the building had to be torn down. Instead of rebuilding at the same location, Campus Coworking Space owners Missy Creed and Sarah Bohl decided to look for a new location.

In the meantime, they operated each of their businesses out of Creed’s living room. About a month before the tornado hit, Creed and Bohl had acquired Jefferson City Magazine, which had just moved into the campus building that week.

“We were not only trying to rebuild a business that we had just launched, but also figuring out an entirely new position and being owners of the magazine,” Creed said. “It was a lot of learning at the same time, all at once.”

A Campus Coworking Space member had a house on High Street that he had just renovated and was looking to sell. After touring the house, Creed and Bohl immediately knew it was the right fit.

“We just walked through, and we said, ‘We’ll take it,’ and so our Realtor and banker got to work, and we moved in and were open 38 days later,” Creed said.

They had to spend some time purchasing new items and reorganizing their business plan because the new location didn’t have an event space, retail store or as many private offices and open space. However, Campus Coworking Space reopened at 609 E. High St. in January 2020.

While it was more work at the time, Creed said it was “truly a blessing” to have to start over.

“I think we would have struggled there making rent because the concept of coworking has been a little slow for people to adapt and grasp the concept a little bit, and so I think, in hindsight, that space was entirely too big for us to start.”

Creed said she thinks her business took a bigger hit from the COVID-19 pandemic than the tornado.

“We were starting to gain steam,” she said. “We had some momentum, but then COVID probably hurt the coworking space more than anything.”

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For other businesses, while the pandemic did cause challenges, the business owners were more prepared for it because of the tornado.

Tyler Woods, owner of Tyler M. Woods Funeral Director at 611 E. Capitol Ave., said the pandemic didn’t affect him as much as the tornado because the tornado taught him to be prepared for anything to happen.

The night of the tornado, Woods was at home on the west side of town, listening to the weather report and police scanner. He started driving to the funeral home as soon as he heard what was happening, and arrived about 10 minutes after the tornado hit it.

When he got to Capitol Avenue, he had to drive over a roof and a small tree to get close to his funeral home. He stood there and looked around, not knowing what to think or do.

“By the time I got there, I just was in shock and disbelief,” he said.

The structure of the stone building was stable, but the roof was torn up, the windows and doors were blown out, and the building’s interior suffered significant damage. Every piece of furniture was broken, the ceiling tiles were smashed and ripped out, and the floor was covered in glass and tree branches.

Once the wind blew through the windows, it caused significant air pressure inside the building. Woods estimates he lost about 80 percent of his furniture, office equipment and files that were blown out of the windows.

“Due to the structure being so good and so strong, the interior of our building suffered,” Woods said. “Our roof didn’t get lifted off, and we didn’t lose any exterior walls, so the wind was caught in there.”

Woods called his contractor, who had just finished repairing the building five days prior after it was struck by lightening. The contractor arrived on the scene only a few hours after the tornado.

“By 6 a.m., he had a crew assembled that cleaned up the entire area outside, and we even were able to clean up a couple of neighboring properties,” Woods said. “By 3 p.m., our guys had everything cleaned up.”

Woods and three other people spent that weekend cleaning the inside. By Monday, they had reassembled an office, allowing him to continue his business with a place to meet families.

“Beforehand, we had this big, beautiful building where people could come in, and we had all kinds of room and space,” Woods said. “For about six months, we were limited to restrooms and two offices to meet in.”

With limited space, they had to rely on churches and cemeteries for funeral services.

“It was very flexible and fluid for about the first month until we had to figure out how we were going to handle conducting funeral services,” Woods said.

Another significant challenge was losing every computer and five vehicles that were vital to the business, he said.

“They were vehicles that were only used in a funeral procession going 30 miles an hour in the city behind the police escort,” Woods said. “They were safe, so we didn’t have them fully insured. Those were just completely gone forever. That was a big hurdle for us right away.”

Woods continued to operate his business as construction and remodeling was happening around him. They were able to keep the structure of the building up and repair the inside.

“The major work like the roof, the windows, the flooring, all the drywall work, things like that, we were finished by mid-December of 2019,” he said.

Through everything, Woods said he has learned to be prepared for anything and not trust that certain things — like his vehicles — would be okay.

“Whenever the pandemic came about, I had lived through this tornado with owning a funeral home, and I had learned how to be prepared for almost anything and know how to respond to things very quickly,” he said.

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For Adam Veile, chief executive officer of Communique, the tornado forced him and his employees to work from home before the pandemic did.

The Capitol Avenue building lost a wall and had damage to the roof and windows. After the tornado hit the building, his accountant texted him photos — but Veile didn’t understand the scope of the damage until he arrived on the scene.

“Right away, I was positive that we had to tear the building down,” Veile said.

He was certain the building would need to be demolished, but that wasn’t the case.

The building stood without a wall until January 2020 while Veile worked with architects and the contractor to develop plans. Construction was done by August.

At first, it was a challenge to keep the business functioning and adjust to working from home right as Veile was transitioning to CEO after his father, Steve Veile, retired.

“The disruption was really difficult at first,” he said. “It was an unexpected way to transition.”

However, this made it easier to adjust once the COVID-19 pandemic started.

“We had already set up to not have a place to work, so it was almost like we went through that before the rest of the world,” Veile said.

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