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Lincoln University president rides out storm, survives unhurt

Lincoln University president rides out storm, survives unhurt

May 26th, 2019 by Bob Watson in Local News

Gallery: May 22, 2019, Tornado Photo Gallery

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Lincoln University President Jerald Jones Woolfolk said last week the biggest lesson anyone can get from her experience is simple: "When they hear the siren, go to a safe place."

Woolfolk told the News Tribune on Friday: "If I had not gone downstairs (to the basement), the tornado would have sucked me out of my room.

"Since the furniture ended up somewhere on the highway, I probably would have ended up there, too."

Since coming to Jefferson City a year ago, to be Lincoln's 20th president, Woolfolk has lived in LU's President's House at 601 Jackson St.

The stone-walled home, built in 1916, sits prominently on a hilltop, overlooking the U.S. 50/63 Expressway and Simonsen 9th Grade Center to the north, and the valley between it and the Lincoln campus to the east.

It was damaged substantially during Wednesday night's tornado.

But, Woolfolk told the News Tribune, "My understanding is that the home is salvageable.

"It will be repaired, and we will start working on it as soon as possible."

She was home Wednesday night, watching television in her upstairs bedroom when the first warning sirens sounded.

"So, I immediately got up and went down to a lower level, and turned the television on (there)," she said, noting she continued to follow the televised warnings and descriptions of the approaching storm — until "that television went out (and) I went down to the basement."

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She had no TV or radio in the basement, Woolfolk said, and she and a friend sat in media silence.

She knew when the tornado hit the home — although she never heard the "train sound" that other tornado survivors have reported.

"It was very quiet, and we sat there for about 15 minutes and then, all of a sudden, you could hear the sound and you knew it was a tornado," Woolfolk explained. "It didn't sound like a train, to me.

"It just sounded like a loud, roaring wind."

The National Weather Service has determined last week's storm hit some parts of Cole County as an EF-1, with wind speeds ranging from 86-110 mph.

But at its peak, as it blew through Jefferson City, the storm was an EF-3, with winds blowing from 136-165 mph.

When the twister hit the President's House, Woolfolk said, she didn't feel any pressure change.

"I just heard the noise," she recalled. "It probably lasted about five minutes, at the most.

"Maybe 3-5 minutes — and (then) it was gone."

She said they waited another five or 10 minutes after the storm passed before they tried to leave the basement.

"As I was coming (up) from the basement, I could see tree branches on the stairs and, the closer I got to the main floor, there were leaves and tree (pieces)," Woolfolk said. "And when I got to the main floor, there was mud on the walls.

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"In the living room, the furniture was gone.

"I'd never seen anything like it before."

Her first reactions to that sight?

"Oh, my God!" she reported, followed by "Thank You" to God that she was safe and hadn't been hurt.

"I'm a woman of faith," she added, "and I believe in God's grace and mercy.

"And he shows it to me every day."

Woolfolk said that, although she knew the damage was serious, it was midnight, it was dark and the electricity was gone.

"I knew it was bad, but I really did not realize how bad it was until the next day," she said.

On Thursday morning, Woolfolk went to the LU campus about 7 a.m.

The spring semester ended a couple weeks ago, and summer school hasn't started yet, she noted — so only about 100 students were on campus when the storm blew through Jefferson City.

"The campus had minimal damage and no injuries," she reported. "We got the students down to the basement, and they were not injured."

Then she went back to the President's House.

"That's when I realized how bad it was," she said.

Woolfolk acknowledged that leadership classes help administrators learn how to deal with crises.

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"We have emergency management training and training in terms of how to respond in a tragedy," she explained. "And basically, we have to remain calm enough to be able to do the things that we need to do to be able to protect lives and property."

But nothing in her training prepared her for dealing personally with a tornado.

While she remained calm during the storm, Woolfolk said Friday, "now I'm a little frantic" as she tries to deal with her personal issues and still run a university.

In some ways, she said, her life right now is like a juggler with too many balls in the air at one time.

It's too soon, for instance, to know how much of her personal property can be saved and how much was lost to the storm — the damage and those losses still must be evaluated.

"I can imagine that most of it is not going to be recoverable," Woolfolk told the News Tribune, with "all the glass and shards all through the house. And the furniture was moved all around.

"And there was (rain) water in the house."

Like some of the storm's victims, Woolfolk was able to get a hotel room, and LU officials "think we've found a place that I can rent" until the President's House is restored, she said.

Woolfolk said she's "grateful that Jefferson City (police) and LU PD and all the surrounding law enforcement officers responded so quickly. We're grateful for the emergency system that Jefferson City and Cole County have."

She personally is grateful for the number of phone calls she's received, from other university presidents around the state, "to make sure we were OK and to see what they could do," as well as from Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe, Gov. Mike Parson and others.

"I'm just proud to be a member of this community," Woolfolk said. "I just thank everybody for their support.

"I appreciate it."