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story.lead_photo.caption The Harrison family stands together for a photo Friday during the Raising of the Wall ceremony for a house being constructed by Habitat for Humanity in the aftermath of the tornado. Photo by Greta Cross / News Tribune.

Like selectively planted spring flowers, brightly painted signs in the "front yard" of a new home under construction at 415 E. Ashley St. welcomed the arrival of a caravan of community leaders.

The "Restoring Hope Care-A-Van" contained a variety of people who have been instrumental in helping Jefferson City recover — not only from the tornado that struck the city May 22, 2019, but also during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

"We had a vision of the Restoring Hope Care-A-Van," said Ann Bax, president of the United Way of Central Missouri, "and I think the vision was not as great as the reality."

The community saw a year ago how well its members work together, Bax said. She and others addressed listeners outside the foundation for the River City Habitat for Humanity Home being built there Friday afternoon.

"We understand that we are a team, and we certainly saw that a year ago today," Bax told about 60 people who practiced social distancing as they spread widely in front of and across the street from the home. "That next morning — I'll never forget all the calls and the people coming in the door of the United Way."

What a tremendous problem it was to not have enough staff to manage all the people who wanted to help their community after the tornado, she said.

The Care-A-Van was a way to recognize all the organizations that pitched in after the tornado and continue to assist Jefferson City today, she said.

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Its vehicles represented health and human services agencies, law enforcement and faith-based groups immersed in disaster recovery and the COVID-19 relief efforts.

Organizers scheduled the Care-A-Van to occur May 22, a year to the day after an EF-3 tornado devastated communities from Eldon to Jefferson City.

The event was intended to commemorate individuals, nonprofits and first responders who have served affected communities during the current pandemic and who served following last year's tornado in Cole and Miller counties.

The Care-A-Van passed organizations and businesses that have played roles in response, recovery and rebuilding — and highlighted health care organizations like the Cole County Health Department, Jefferson City Medical Group, St. Mary's Hospital and Capital Region Medical Center; emergency workers at the Jefferson City police and fire departments and the Cole County Sheriff's Office; businesses, such as Riley Auto Group; and nonprofits.

The yard signs outside the Ashley Street home site shared messages of hope: #restoringhope, #jcstrong, "The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate actions of its members," and others.

Bax said she was told long-term recovery from the storm would take years. But her internal optimism wouldn't let her believe it.

Despite the best efforts of the "amazing community," there are still a lot of people hurting, she said.

"We are — person by person, family by family — trying to help our disaster survivors get back to their new normal," Bax said about the community's Long-Term Recovery Committee. "It's an amazing process.

"Together, we are going to make this community stronger and better than it was before."

It was no accident the Care-A-Van reached its crescendo outside the Ashley Street home. The Habitat for Humanity home is one of four being built to house families totaling 18 members.

The four houses are under construction in addition to the normal four or five the organization completes each year, and came about in response to a dire lack of housing in Jefferson City, which the tornado exacerbated, according to Susan Cook-Williams, the local agency's executive director.

As those who participated in the Care-A-Van watched, staff from River City Habitat for Humanity, the Jefferson City Fire Department and others conducted a ceremonial wall-raising.

When Habitat for Humanity first started planning the event, it looked a little different. There were to be streets blocked off to accommodate large groups of people, but social-distancing rules intended to prevent spread of the coronavirus meant the plans had to change, Cook-Williams said.

"It's still going to be an amazing tribute to our town's strength," she said. "A year ago today, at 11:43 p.m., Mother Nature showed us her strength. Mother Nature's strength was undeniable in those 14 minutes. But in minute 15 and every minute after that, the people of Jefferson City have shown their strengths."

#JeffCityStrong showed in the first responders pulling trapped people from their homes, she said. It showed with neighbors helping neighbors. It showed in the community coming together to comfort survivors while planning for recovery and rebuilding.

"Those recovery efforts are far from over," Cook-Williams said. "For those who are still hurting, we know that it doesn't seem fast enough."

Jefferson City will not stop until it has surpassed where it was before the tornado, she said.

Construction on the four "Road to Recovery" homes has been pushed back until July 1, she said. Crews will build alongside each other, using extra precautions to assure families and workers are safe.

As he rode through the streets in the Care-A-Van, the emotions of the day struck Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe.

"The amount of volunteers we didn't even know what to do with them," Kehoe said. "There were so many people that wanted to help in the first hours. That was our biggest problem."

Gallery: PHOTO GALLERY: 'Care-A-Van' marks tornado anniversary
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