‘We were all shaking’: Jefferson City tornado leaves dozens injured, 100 in shelters

Shingles, insulation and tree branches were scattered all over Neftali Angel’s yard along Adams Street Thursday morning.

His house, a block away from Capitol Region Medical Center, was mostly unharmed, but parts of his roof sat on his neighbor’s car.

“We have no idea where this came from,” he said, pointing to a five-foot wooden shard sticking out of the ground near his home.

Close to midnight, he and his wife, Roxanna, had heard the sirens and decided to take cover with Roxanna’s father in the basement once the wind began to pick up. They heard hail and the lights blinked.

Their Chihuahuas, Faline and Charmer, were shaking.

“We were all shaking,” said Roxanna, 23.

They prayed to Jehovah over and over again. They felt the house move.

“It was the worst minutes of our lives,” said Neftali, 24.

The family lived through a tornado that ripped through Jefferson City Wednesday night, leaving destruction in its wake.

On Thursday the National Weather Service in St. Louis said the tornado reached a maximum damage rating of EF-3, based on initial information from survey teams. The tornado remained on the ground for several minutes before moving out of the city.

The weather service said that on Wednesday night, after sounding the initial tornado warning at 11:08 p.m., it issued a rarely-used tornado emergency at 11:43 p.m. as it became clear the tornado would hit the heavily-populated state capital.

The tornado emergency alert was created in 2013 after a tornado devastated Moore, Oklahoma.

As of 11 a.m. Thursday in Jefferson City and surrounding Cole County, the number of injured stood at 25, according to authorities, Jefferson City police Lt. David Williams said at a morning news conference.

No deaths have been reported in Jefferson City, but three people were killed by a tornado near Golden City in the southwestern part of the state.

The number of damaged homes and businesses had not yet been counted, Williams said.

About 100 people were taking refuge in three shelters, Williams said, and police did not want to announce the specific locations of shelters for fear of overwhelming them. He advised members of the public to contact police if they were displaced.

The American Red Cross announced it has opened three shelters in the Jefferson City area, at Thomas Jefferson Middle School, 1201 Fairgrounds Road, and in nearby Eldon, at the Upper Elementary School FEMA Tornado Safe Room, 407 E. 15th Street, and the Eldon Community Center at 309 E. Second Street.

The town of Eldon, about 35 miles southwest of Jefferson City, also suffered damage from the same storm that created the tornado, according to Jason Titus, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Springfield.

The storm hit there about 11 p.m., damaging roofs and an apartment complex. No injuries were reported there.

The power company Ameren had 250 workers on the ground responding to gas and electric problems, he said.

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‘Mother nature at its worst’

Through the morning, residents wandered Ellis Boulevard south of U.S. Route 54, calling family members and taking photos of downed powerlines, split tree trunks and debris scattered across the street.

Nearby at the Hidden Oaks Apartments, Jessica Wheatley said she had woken up in the middle of the night to sirens wailing and objects hitting her windows. Winds tore up her deck. She felt trapped, so she stayed in her bed.

“I thought I was going to die,” she said. “This is definitely mother nature at its worst.”

Not far away, Glen Gessley examined damage at the Community Christian Church, where he is a board member. He said when he got the call at 1 a.m. from the pastor saying the church took a direct hit from the tornado, he thought it might not be as bad as she made it sound.

But he learned he was wrong when he arrived to discover glass throughout the inside of the church, tree limbs thrown across the lawn, and a chair that, before the tornado, was in the front of the sanctuary behind it.

“She wasn’t exaggerating at all,” Gessley said. “I don’t think you get a more direct hit than this.”

About 100 members attend the church, which opened in 1964. Some have asked Gessley how they can help.

But at this point, he is unsure if the building will have to be bulldozed and rebuilt. He guessed the damage was in the millions of dollars.

Gessley asked an engineer examining the church’s structure Thursday morning what he thought. The inspector responded: “I think you’re going to have a new church.”

The University of Missouri announced Thursday it is offering assistance to people affected by the tornado in Jefferson City.

University officials said they have been in contact with state and local authorities, and with Lincoln University in Jefferson City, to offer help with housing and cleanup efforts.

“Our thoughts are with the residents of Jefferson City this morning, and with the emergency crews working so hard to protect their citizens,” a statement from University of Missouri Chancellor Alexander Cartwright read. “Mizzou teams are working to determine how we can help further.”

‘Can’t stay here’

Most of the entrances in the neighborhood next to Capitol Regional Medical Center were blocked off by police cars or power lines held up by crooked stop signs.

Though tree trunks could be seen leaning away from Adams Street Senior Living, limbs had busted through the windows. None of the facility’s 52 residents were hurt, and staff members had stayed over night, according to Michelle Edwards, assistant director of nursing.

“We are a little sleepy,” Edwards said. “We are going good. We have hot food and the lights are on.”

Blocks away, a crew of two Jefferson City firefighters, a Missouri Task Force One member with a search dog, and a building inspector knocked on doors. The search dog, a black lab named Phavor, bounded into homes where stairs and doors were blocked by debris.

Not far away, Melanie Dickinson, 41, paced while fielding calls from family members who were worried about her and her three children. As of 11 a.m., Dickinson had not been able to get contact with her son-in-law, who had been dropped off in Jefferson City for work.

Before the tornado hit, Dickinson had stood outside and had watched the sky turn green.

“Once the train sound came, I knew to take my ass inside,” Dickinson said.

She gathered with her family in a stairway with no windows and had them recite the Lord’s Prayer. Once the winds died down, her 12-year-old son didn’t want her to leave the house to check on neighbors.

“I think he was more afraid of the unknown,” Dickinson said.

She had him repeat after her: “What time I’m afraid, I’ll trust in the Lord.”

With power lines crisscrossing her driveway and wrapped around her SUV, Dickinson said, she couldn’t do much but clean Thursday morning. In her backyard lay a mangled roof.

“I don’t think that’s mine,” Dickinson said. Instead, her roof was most likely in her neighbor’s front yard.

As a renter, Dickinson said she was looking to move.

“I don’t know where but we can’t stay here,” Dickinson said.

Star reporter Katie Bernard contributed to this report.

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Crystal Thomas covers Missouri politics for The Kansas City Star. An Illinois native and a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism, she has experience covering state and local government.
Luke Nozicka covers local crime and federal courts for The Kansas City Star. Before joining The Star, he covered breaking news and courts for The Des Moines Register.