Saturday, July 6, 2019

The Jefferson City Tornado

Hi, folks, an overdue post about the tornado that struck Jefferson City at about 11:30 p.m. on May 22. I wrote the following the day after the event, while I was still in a daze. It’s based on something I shared with my peeps on Facebook, but mainly, I think it served as a way to kind of deal with what I’d witnessed.

Merely witnessed; I had no direct damage, thank goodness, but it’s still a shock. We humans kinda base our everyday lives on certain things being solid, unchangeable. Like stone or brick buildings you see every day, and large trees. In about five or ten minutes, those were drastically changed.

It was especially—ironic? I’m scared to use that term anymore—because the afternoon of the tornado, just hours before it happened, Sue and I had met a friend at Sapphire’s restaurant, at the top of the Doubletree hotel (a place I rarely go). Unless you score a trip to the top of the Capitol, Sapphire’s is probably the best view you can get of downtown Jeff City. And so we had taken a few moments to walk from window to window, admiring the view, commenting on how Jeff has become more beautified in the past fifteen or twenty years. Yes, ironic is the term.

One more note: My photos are from May 26, when Sue and I finally drive around to gawk at the devastation. We waited until the streets were cleared of debris and officially open. By that time, most homes with major damage had had their windows boarded up and roofs covered with tarps—looking over the city, a patchwork of plastic blue tarps and twisted, shredded tree trunks dominated the stricken parts of the town.

At the end, I share a link to a news helicopter video that shows lots of the devastation. It starts with images of the Capitol covered with plastic—the plastic has been there for months, as they’re doing major renovation to the dome. The helicopter news team was from St. Louis, so they obviously didn't know the Capitol was find. So it doesn’t represent tornado damage, FYI. Thankfully, the Capitol escaped the tornado.

May 23, 2019

Thanks, everyone, for checking in with me. It’s just more than 12 hours after the tornado as I write this. I haven't spent much time on social media today. Whenever I look at Facebook, I’m overwhelmed by the photos and videos of destruction. And each time I go out in our yard, I see bits of soggy fiberglass insulation, crumpled siding, and other detritus that got sucked up from the areas that got blasted and then rained down on our street.

But Sue and I, and most of our immediate neighborhood, have come through the tornado just fine.

Oddly, last night we were mostly concerned about an apparent tornado that was moving across northern Boone County, and we were concerned for my parents.

When the sirens sounded, we headed downstairs out of a sense of duty. There, we watched TV weather coverage on my laptop. Oddly, as the big line of storms swept from west to east across the weather radar, we were mostly concerned about an apparent tornado that was moving across northern Boone County, and we were concerned for my parents, who live in northeast Columbia. But once that had passed well north of them, it seemed the worst was over. The “blobs” heading toward us, from the west and south, seemed not very intense, plus, they ALWAYS divide in two before they reach us: one blob always veers north, the other south. So we headed back upstairs. I actually got into bed. Then the sirens sounded again—this time, it was headed at us.

This time, we put Patches and Lois in their kitty carriers and took them into the basement, and we got Mac to follow us down there, too. We grabbed flashlights and set up chairs between the furnaces and the workbench. Again, we watched the local TV coverage, with increasing anxiety as we heard things like “Confirmed tornado at Brazito, heading toward the south side of Jefferson City along Highway 54”—Well, we live in the “Southside,” and Highway 54 was basically straight in our direction—indeed, straight at the heart of town, including the state capitol building.

The storm got gradually worse; we heard that the tornado was verified by sight by a trained spotter on the ground. The tornado was at 54 and 179. We looked out our basement door: it was pretty windy, but I’ve seen it worse (indeed, I think it was worse on Tuesday, when it blew one of our storm windows into a room and shattered it on the floor). But, you know . . . sheets of rain, strong winds, the crisp tinkling sound of small hail. (I think.) Then the lights went out at the height of the storm. And so our Internet went out, too.

From our perspective, it never seemed more than any other big storm, with strong winds and drenching sheets of rain. We sat there, between the furnaces and the workbench, listening to the kitties paw at their carriers, trying not to think how bad it could be—and then it was over. It seemed to stop rather abruptly, and we were left there with our flashlights on, thinking, "well—was that it?" How do you know when it’s over?

We learned, bit by bit, that the tornado had gone through the city south and east of us, missing the very center of town, with us included. We were very lucky. We crept back upstairs to free our kitties and try to sleep. It was clear that something had happened. Our electricity was out all night, but cars and emergency vehicles kept going by.

Sleep was next to impossible; we heard sirens pretty much all night on the 50/63 Expressway (which passes one block north of our house), and there were lots of cars and trucks zooming up and down Broadway. The air in the house was heavy and warm, but we didn't want to open the windows with the sporadic rain. With our electricity out, we didn't know the extent of the destruction elsewhere in the city. A friend texted me with some initial news about destruction. Simonson school "destroyed," Reilly Chevrolet "destroyed," police station, hospital without power. It was starting to feel Dada. I managed to get some sleep, probably starting around 2 a.m.

At around 4:45 a.m., the electricity came back on: Yay! I got up and turned off a bunch of lights that had been on when the power went off. Then, as I stepped back into the bedroom, the power went out again. It was confusing: wait, did the power just go off again? Really? . . . Or did I just dream it had come back on? What?

The power came back on for good at about 5:30, and starting about then, it was nonstop texts and phone calls from family and friends, and with the electricity back on, I could see the press announcements and the videos . . . and there seemed to be helicopters everywhere.

So it’s been a Dada day. Didn't get much sleep, so I feel achy and crusty, and it's mostly been overcast, so it could be 7 a.m. now or it could be noon or even 7 p.m. Considering our immediate area is pretty okay (look at it this way: we have some potted plants in our yard that ALWAYS fall over in ANY wind, and last night they never fell over)—still, this morning I noticed random soggy fragments of fiberglass insulation here and there on the ground, and shiny crumpled-up pieces of siding; I wondered, "Is that part of what used to be Riley Chevrolet? Or maybe it's part of Community Christian Church, or the Sonic, or Braun’s storage units, or maybe it came clear from Brazito . . ."

And life goes on, in its weird way. I went for coffee at Three Story on Dunklin and there were people there, texting like crazy and dazed but talking agitatedly about the mayhem on Jackson Street. Dunklin, just past the next intersection, was blocked off, with law enforcement officials there telling people not to go through.

And this morning the air conditioning guy came over for routine maintenance (because why not), and then suddenly our water stopped, and soon the water company was on the corner fooling with the hydrant, so now that's working again.

I kind of know how this goes—I was in Columbia for the 1998 Southridge tornado, and my workplace was on LeMone Boulevard, which was hit hard, and I had to go there and remove anything that I might possibly need for, like, who knows how long, since I’d have to work at home. I remember the blobs of soggy fiberglass on the sidewalk—they give me flashbacks—and the flapping roof and siding that had been peeled off the building like the lid of a sardine can, the quiet, disheveled dead sparrows in the parking lot, the fallen florescent light fixtures sagging into the hallway, dangling by their electrical conduits. I remember carrying my office plants into my car, thinking it weird how some stuff survives perfectly fine, and other stuff is utterly blasted away. It’s a damn convincing argument for Dumb Luck.

I'm feeling pretty sick for my friends and everyone else on Capitol Avenue and all the other places in town that have suffered staggering destruction. Those people have spent decades repairing and shining and polishing those fabulous, famous, beautiful homes, fighting tooth and nail to pull the rest of their avenue upward with them—and they formed a True Community in the process. All their heart and hard work . . . blasted. Someone wrote that Capital Avenue is Jefferson City's “front porch.” They are the heart and soul of our city’s movers and shakers. Many core people in the local historic preservation community have properties there. For the sake of our town, I hope they can repair those gems, because our CITY will be greatly diminished without them.

I also feel very sorry for the many, many people displaced from the modest and run-down homes—the homes they won't show on the news—many of them renters, without savings, whose entire fortune (such as it is) amounts to the possessions in their homes. Many of these people must certainly lack insurance and the savvy to figure out how to cope financially with what's happened to them, and their much simpler problem will be: Here we go again, back to square one, where we've basically always been.

And I feel sorry for everyone in between—aching arms, shoulders, backs, and hearts, tossing things into boxes, hoping some of it can be cleaned up and saved. People suddenly unable to get around town, now that their car is, like, totaled, or upside down. People tramping back and forth through carpet soggy with a friend's blood, moving their valuables to safety. You never think it's REALLY going to happen to your town . . .