Jefferson City Public Schools Superintendent Larry Linthacum and the staff of Thomas Jefferson Middle School were nominated as "Heroes of the Storm" for their quick response to getting a shelter open at TJMS in the immediate hours after the May 22 tornado.
"Despite extensive damage to multiple school properties, Superintendent Linthacum didn't hesitate to quickly open a shelter at the Thomas Jefferson Middle School at the request of the Emergency Operations Center. Not only did they open their doors in the wee hours of the morning on May 23, but they went beyond the call and were feeding displaced storm survivors almost immediately. JCPS continued to operate the shelter for over two weeks (even when it required rearranging their already planned summer programming) until other accommodations could be made," according to the nomination from a local firefighter.
"It wasn't about the school district; it was about the community," Linthacum said of responding to the need to get a roof over people's heads that night.
After the tornado hit, Linthacum; Frank Underwood, JCPS director of facilities and transportation and safety and security coordinator; and John Moon, JCPS maintenance supervisor, inspected school properties, assessing damage to the extent they could in the dark.
The damaged buildings included Simonsen 9th Grade Center and Thorpe Gordon Elementary School.
His first look at Simonsen is Linthacum's most vivid memory of it all — his gut churning to think of what could have happened if the tornado had hit when school was in session, as had been the case just a few hours earlier on the last day of school May 22.
"It was just blessed that we did not have any kids in the building," he said.
Linthacum recalled that it was Jefferson City Police Department Sgt. Jason Payne who called Underwood to ask if any schools could be opened as a shelter.
Linthacum said TJMS was chosen as the shelter site because it had electricity, when other school buildings such as Moreau Heights Elementary School and Lewis and Clark Middle School did not.
Linthacum especially credited the district's food service and maintenance staff for getting TJMS ready, and he said two to four food service staff worked each shift at the shelter.
The district's director of school nutritional services, Dana Doerhoff, came in the middle of the night after the tornado to open the kitchen and get ovens going to serve breakfast to the people at the shelter, JCPS Director of Communications Ryan Burns said.
On the morning of May 23, as of about 4 or 4:30 a.m., there were about 45 people at the shelter, where the American Red Cross was setting up cots in the school's gym, Burns said.
Burns last week credited Linthacum with being "passionate about finding a way to make that work" with summer school still to be held the following week.
JCPS did have summer school as planned starting the week after the tornado — and had enough space at TJMS to separate the shelter area from areas being used for class.
While the shelter at TJMS was open — from 1 a.m. May 23 through 10 a.m. June 11 — there were 561 overnight stays, the American Red Cross of Missouri and Arkansas reported last week.
The TJMS shelter's total number of overnight stays was more than that of any of the other individual shelters in the state related to tornadoes and floods that were managed by the American Red Cross or a partner, according to Red Cross records.
The shelter had more than 35 percent of the total number of overnight Red Cross shelter stays in the state caused by tornadoes and floods; Eldon's shelters together had more than 30 percent of the overnight stays in the state.
Linthacum's takeaway of the experience is how the community came together.
"We talk about being 'stronger together,' and it truly was exemplified," he said. "It's hopefully a reality every day, but in times of crisis, the true character comes out."
Other "Heroes of the Storm"
There were nearly 20 individuals and organizations who received plaques Saturday, Aug. 27, 2019, at a ceremony recognizing them as "Heroes of the Storm" for their actions during the May 22 tornado. Read their stories: