Three disasters struck Jefferson City over the past year, each bringing unique, difficult challenges. While Mid-Missourians responded with a sense of resolve, generosity and community to each of the disasters, the latest challenge threatens to overwhelm the Capital City's charitable network.
The first blow to the community came in late spring, when floodwaters covered miles of farmland and washed away businesses. The second strike came in the form of a tornado that cut through the community like a knife, affecting hundreds of families and businesses.
The third disaster, which continues, has indiscriminately mentally and financially stressed everybody in the community.
For many, although they have piled one-atop-the-other, thoughts of the first two disasters have faded, while the pandemic continues and will be burned into their memories.
"This whole thing — everything that has transpired over the past year — is an experience that emphasizes the importance of humility," said Kevin Riley, one of three brothers who own Riley Chevrolet.
Riley's family, possibly more than most, was hard-hit by the tag-team disasters.
The May 22, 2019, tornado touched down near Eldon in Miller County, struck a portion of the town and continued along a path that took it into Cole County and through eastern Jefferson City before it crossed the Missouri River and dissipated.
The storm damaged hundreds of structures — 600 in Cole County alone. Among those structures was the Riley family car dealership; its buildings and more than 750 cars in inventory were destroyed.
"The family and business aren't the only things impacted by these different forms of adversity. We stay positive and keep our chins up and move forward."
Riley spoke late last month as not only residents of the city — but those of the county, state and country — dealt with the effects of the pandemic, which began causing U.S. deaths in February. By mid-March, local and state health officials recommended social distancing and cancellation of large gatherings to help prevent the spread of the virus. Cole County health officials implemented a stay-at-home order March 28. A statewide order followed.
The orders challenged businesses to maintain operations and keep employees working. Furloughs and layoffs caused families to struggle to make ends meet.
"We're grateful for what we have," Riley said. "We've been blessed in many ways. These are the challenges you get in life — and you deal with them."
Jefferson City has a history of dealing with challenges.
Flooding was bad last year, said Cole County Presiding Commissioner Sam Bushman, but the city has seen worse.
In 1993, he said, Missouri River floodwaters forced the state to close the U.S. 54 Missouri River Bridge. Drivers were forced to take Missouri 179 to Rocheport to cross the river. Only three routes — High Street, Stadium Boulevard and Ellis Boulevard — provided east/west passage through Jefferson City.
Looking back at that 1993 experience, Bushman recalls his business at Samuel's Tuxedo and Gifts declined by about 25 percent.
With the pandemic, the effects are much more devastating.
"Now I stand to lose all my prom and spring weddings, so I will be down about $250,000," he said.
And the pandemic is different than the other disasters in other ways, Bushman said. Last year's flooding affected farmers most. The tornado was terribly devastating for a number of businesses. But the pandemic is affecting nearly every business.
Sales tax revenue will drop drastically for the community and county, he said.
"As far as (the Cole County) budget this year, we know it's going to take a big hit. We have federal monies coming in to help with our emergency spending, but sales tax helps pay for EMS and the jail, and those numbers will be way down," Bushman said. "We are going to have to wait and see what the impact will be on Cole County, and cut where we have to cut. This is not going to be a pretty year."
A financial hit
Although 2019 flooding affected fewer residents than either the pandemic or tornado, it still caused millions of dollars in damage in Central Missouri.
In mid-March 2019, the river rose above flood stage and continued to rise, setting records. Flooding devastated homes, farms, businesses and the Jefferson City Memorial Airport. The river didn't recede below flood stage until mid-December.
Flooding is nothing new to Jefferson City, according to City Administrator Steve Crowell.
The Missouri River is an unstoppable force. "When it starts raining, we start thinking about flooding," he said.
And staff start watching what's happening upstream, he continued, where much of the flooding that affects the city begins.
As with all disasters, Jefferson City collaborates with Cole County on how it responds to flooding.
Shannon Kliethermes, Cole County Public Works senior planner, said that as floodplain maps were developed over the past few decades, fewer homes, businesses and other structures have been built in places where they are in danger from flooding.
"Most of the 'development' that we have in the floodplain is older homes that were in there before the floodplain," Kliethermes said. "People in those homes know what to do (during a flood) better than anybody else. They know to get their equipment out."
They also know how to get their flood insurance claims processed, he continued.
The flooding last year wasn't unlike most floods, he said, except the duration set records and it nearly set a depth level record.
"Most of our flooding here is in the backwater along the Osage River," Kliethermes said. "We don't have current doing a lot of damage. But that was a lot of water for a long time."
Repairs from the flooding continue, he said. And some repairs from the tornado are only now beginning.
Jefferson City has expended millions of dollars to clean up following the flooding and tornado. Fortunately, with disasters declared, FEMA reimbursed the city for much of the costs.
FEMA provides a 75 percent reimbursement for approved projects and allowable costs, according to Margie Mueller, the city's director of finance. It has, so far, reimbursed $3.5 million to the city.
"The 3.2 million includes approximately $1.5 million in accounts payable invoices paid by the city. The remaining $1.7 million is staff time and equipment usage," she said. The city continues to provide documentation for approved projects to FEMA.
The tornado's toll in "accounts payable," which includes materials, supplies, contracts, services and more, was $455,000, City Administrator Steve Crowell said. For flooding, it was $1,005,200. Of that, $703,000 was for the Riverbank Stabilization project.
The city and county each "went their own way" for tornado cleanup, he said. He added Jefferson City received a great deal of help from other cities, including Columbia.
In rural Miller County, the tornado caused Eldon to offer services it had never had to before, according to Eldon City Administrator Debbie Guthrie.
"This is the first federal declared disaster the city of Eldon has had to house and feed citizens displaced by the storm," she said. " It was a learning curve to coordinate the outside agencies and the local social organizations to make sure the displaced citizens were fed and comfortable. We were so blessed by volunteers that stepped up to help in whatever needed to be done."
Nonprofits: a first line of defense
The first line of relief in any disaster is a community of charities with a mission of service. For the past year, the United Way has been the backbone of the community's response to the disasters.
Strangely enough, it was Hurricane Katrina in 2005 that set the United Way on a course that allowed it to be a go-to resource for disaster response, according to Ann Bax, president of the United Way of Central Missouri.
Prior to the hurricane, federal disaster resources intended to help households recover were scarce. The federal government upped its game following the hurricane, she said.
Under federal guidance, disaster case management evolved from a volunteer-operated program to one that is professionally conducted.
The Federal Flood Insurance Program was instituted to help people who live in floodplains receive maximum benefits from FEMA.
"We were fortunate that there was not a huge number of residences impacted by the flooding early last year," Bax said. "But, of course, every community member impacted was of great concern."
Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri already had experience (and trained case managers) helping guide people through the resources necessary to recover from disasters, such as flooding, she said.
In addition to setting up emergency shelters in Eldon and Jefferson City after the tornado, the American Red Cross helped create Multi-Agency Resource Centers in both cities, Bax said. MARCs are usually single-day gatherings of dozens of resources in one place.
The United Way also served as a clearinghouse to connect people wishing to volunteer after the tornado and flooding with individuals who needed help cleaning their properties and businesses.
Agencies such as The Salvation Army of Jefferson City helped feed and house storm victims.
Justin Windell and his wife, Sarah Windell, Salvation Army corps officers, arrived at their new assignment in Jefferson City about a month after the tornado. By then, the organization's canteen (mobile meal truck) was out delivering hundreds of meals to victims, first responders and cleanup volunteers every day.
After a disaster, people are asked to donate items — usually nonperishable food or hygiene items and other products that won't go bad, Justin Windell said.
"We were very blessed with people donating things. We never ran out of food," Windell said. "(After the tornado) we needed some fresher items. We were in need of things like fresh or frozen meat — the perishable items."
Generous community members came through and helped replenish the Center of Hope's pantries.
And the center's shelter rapidly filled with displaced Jefferson City residents.
It remains at capacity, although the capacity has changed since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
After the tornado, the shelter offered its cold cots program (intended to allow people in need of a warm place to sleep during the winter) to be used on a nightly basis. Social distancing and the threat of virus spread forced The Salvation Army to end the practice and that of offering showers for anyone in the community.
"There's just no way to do it," Windell said.
While it's trying not to turn any new people away, the shelter is also not taking in people who would have to sleep on top bunks, he continued.
Also, it has need for more housing for families.
"We've had calls from Tennessee and Florida — from people who want to stay at our shelter," he said. "We want to make sure the people we promised would be safe."
The shelter wishes to focus on housing the people who are already in the community, he said. The shelter is also offering to-go meals to the hungry, so they can stay outside and maintain social distancing.
Much like the transition in Salvation Army's disaster response, the networks of people created for earlier disaster responses have shifted to provide services during the pandemic.
Catholic Charities has organized young volunteers (who are less susceptible to COVID-19 than elderly people or people with underlying health conditions) to perform tasks, such as distributing food during food banks.
Shortly after stay-at-home orders were issued, The Salvation Army of Jefferson City received a $15,000 grant from the United Way of Central Missouri to assist people to pay rent and utilities, Justin Windell said.
"It can't be people who are already on Social Security," he said. "It's people who have lost their jobs. It's people who were able to take care of themselves in the past."
Wendell said the speed with which the United Way responded speaks well of the community. The organization announced the grant opportunity on a Thursday. The Salvation Army applied for it that Friday and received it the following Monday.
"It was all started by working together with the flooding and the tornado. Things like the Long-Term Recovery Committee have helped us all come together for this COVID response," Windell said. "That network was already there. This just solidified it."
'A marathon, not a sprint'
The tornado that struck the Capital City a year ago was a defining moment in the formation of that network. The United Way, local organizations and outside communities banded together to help with tornado debris cleanup.
The United Way's mission is to mobilize people, Bax said. Second to taking care of disaster survivors is organizing volunteers.
Following the tornado, the nonprofit set up disaster relief funds and assisted with set-up of a donation site at Capital West Christian Church. The community received more than $700,000 in donated products.
And 659 Miller County and Cole County families registered with FEMA. (They may have registered as flood victims. FEMA data does not differentiate, Bax said.)
Disaster experts, she said, say 25 percent of victims recover on their own using insurance, 25 percent need referrals and will recover quickly, 25 percent will need short-term case management and 25 percent will need long-term case management.
"We are finding these stats to be very true for our community," Bax said. "Now, I understand and believe what the experts told us disaster recovery is a journey a marathon, not a sprint."
Recovery often slows down during winter months because of weather and other factors, but picks back up in spring.
"Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a huge barrier to case management as well," she said.
It affects everybody.
On March 24, 2019, the United Way created a Disaster Response Fund to assist tornado victims. The Long-Term Recovery Committee continues to assess and distribute funds from that pool, which reached $340,000 in donations by March 24, 2020, when the United Way closed it and replaced it with the COVID-19 Response Fund. The new fund had reached more than $147,000 in early May.
"This city has a great heart," Guthrie said. "Now, we are helping anyone that needs assistance during the COVID-19 shutdown."
The United Way also provided emergency grants shortly after the COVID-19 outbreak. Recipients included Central Missouri Foster Care and Adoption Association, $5,000; Compass Health, $15,000; Special Learning Center, $1,511.20; The Salvation Army, $15,000; The Food Bank of Central & Northeast Missouri, $3,534; and Little Explorers Discovery Center, $6,800.
The grants were a lifeline for some of the recipients.
Little Explorers Discovery Center Executive Director Donna Scheidt said the center is near the path of the tornado and in a low-lying area, but the natural disasters didn't severely affect it.
"The tornado didn't affect us in the sense that our building was just fine. But some of my staff lost their places to live," Scheidt said. "Some of my families lost their places to live."
The center, which serves the working poor, is a United Way agency that uses a sliding scale for tuition for its children.
The United Way grant was intended to help families continue to pay, even if they lost their jobs, and to allow the center to set up an additional classroom for children of emergency workers and hospital personnel. The grant only helped for about two weeks, Scheidt said.
The families it serves had begun to recover after the tornado.
"We have seen the biggest impact with COVID-19," she said. "The flood and tornado together didn't do as much as COVID-19. A lot of our parents lost their jobs. Some have gone back to work. Some don't know when they'll go back to work."
The center is operating at less than 50 percent capacity. It is licensed to serve 99 children.
"We're going to be as creative as we can and as frugal as we can," she said. "We're going to keep our doors open and continue to do the childhood education program."
'We don't give up'
The road to recovery can be steep and arduous.
The tornado destroyed the building where LaKaisha McCaleb-Sutherland operated her business, Joy and Gladness Children's Academy.
After the tornado, she and her mother operated the day care facility from their home. But social distancing brought about by the pandemic has ended that as well.
For months after the tornado, McCaleb-Sutherland looked for a likely place to build a new site.
"My business is unique. I can't just say, 'I want a building,'" she said.
The structure has to have required amount of outside play area and other features. It has to meet square footage requirements and have parking.
COVID-19 put the search on hold.
"With the pandemic, we pretty much have been at a stop," she said. "We're not taking any children right now. We pretty much shut everything down."
Her story is not unique.
The number of people who have lost their jobs or closed their businesses because of the pandemic is disturbing, Bax said.
"We are concerned with individuals losing employment and the trickle-down effect that will have (losing income, potentially their housing, etc.) — the effects of the pandemic on the economy and if agencies who provide services to the most vulnerable will have funding to provide assistance," she said. "Additionally, we anticipate more households will be in need, possibly some who have not needed services in the past."
And staff at the United Way wonder if agencies have the capacity to assist them, she said.
During and following the disasters, Jefferson City Mayor Carrie Tergin has helped communities keep spirits up and supported victims through their recoveries.
"People are what's important — family, friends, not things," Tergin said. "We centered on helping others get through the disaster and focused on long-term goals, such as rebuilding — not letting the tornado define us, but being proud of how it brought us together in ways that we never thought possible. And we don't give up."