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story.lead_photo.caption Deborah Tragasz is pictured with her cat Gavin shortly after they were reunited, a few days after the tornado that destroyed Tragasz's home in the Hawthorne Apartments complex. (Submitted photo)

The night of May 22 was terrifying for former Hawthorne Apartments resident Deborah Tragasz, as an EF-3 tornado destroyed her Ellis Boulevard apartment complex as it ripped through Jefferson City.

The following days were painful in another way as she waited for the go-ahead to re-enter her apartment and look for her pet of 10 years — Gavin, a 12-year-old, black-and-white cat.

"I was terrified," she said. "The worst part was just not knowing and of course imagining the worst-case scenario: What if he's gotten out?"

Unable to coax Gavin out from his hiding place under her bed that night, Tragasz latched the bedroom door to keep him contained. All she could do was leave him a bowl of water as residents were forced to evacuate after the tornado slammed the apartment complex.

"I can't see him at this point, and I can't get him to come out," she recalled. "It's just mass chaos, and they're telling us to evacuate."

Staying with her roommate's family an hour from Jefferson City, she called animal control the next day to look for Gavin. Authorities had forced entry to several apartments to search for people, and they told her they couldn't find the cat.

Three days after the tornado, Tragasz and her roommate ventured back into their apartment.

"I hear her call out to me, 'Deborah, come quickly — somebody's here to see you,' and he was on the bed waiting for me," she said. "I just picked him up and snuggled him to my chest and cried and cried and cried."

Animal control officers with the Jefferson City Police Department responded to Hawthorne Apartments early in the morning after the tornado to search the debris for residents' pets.

"It was basically taking animals out of apartments that had been left in there and just reuniting them with the owners," animal control officer Matt Barry said.

The Jefferson City Animal Shelter started taking in animals displaced by the storm — including a mama dog and 10 puppies — the morning of May 23.

In all, the shelter took in 39 animals after the tornado — 20 dogs, 17 cats, a ferret and a tortoise, according to animal control staff. Four dogs and 14 cats whose owners have claimed them, but can't take them home yet, remain at the shelter, and the other pets have been reunited with their families.

Nearly at capacity, the local shelter put pet adoptions on hold from May 25-28 as animal control staff brought in a Federal Emergency Management Agency emergency pet shelter to have on standby. With kennels set up in the shelter's garage, they didn't end up using the auxiliary trailer.

"We were very close to being completely full," Barry said Thursday, two weeks after the tornado. "It's still pretty tight right now, but we're still operating like normal with taking strays."

The Humane Society of Missouri housed 16 pets at an emergency pet shelter alongside the Red Cross shelter at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Jefferson City, Humane Society spokeswoman Jean Jay told the News Tribune.

"Eight were surrendered by their owners to the Humane Society of Missouri, and we will rehome them for those people, as they could no longer keep their animals," Jay said. "We returned three to their owners after they were better situated, and five were transferred to the Jefferson City Animal Shelter to complete their emergency boarding period."

The seven cats and one dog surrendered by their owners in Jefferson City will be examined by veterinarians and put up for adoption as quickly as possible at one of the Humane Society of Missouri's shelters in the St. Louis area, Jay said.

While the Jefferson City shelter's records don't specify whether pets were specifically lost in the storm, 15 cats and nine dogs reported missing since May 23 still haven't been accounted for, animal control staff said.

One warm and fuzzy follow-up is that none of the pets brought to the Jefferson City shelter after the storm were injured.

While Gavin was dehydrated and "a little spooked by the whole ordeal," Tragasz said, he was largely unharmed and has returned to his normal self.

And for Tragasz, the transition to a new living arrangement — she and her roommate move into a new apartment later this month — is easier knowing her feline friend is there with her.

"We're still figuring things out, but I can get through anything now that I know he's safe," she said.

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