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story.lead_photo.caption With members of families displaced by the May 2019 tornado standing behind her, Ann Bax, president of the United Way of Central Missouri, expresses gratitude to representatives of numerous non-profit agencies on hand for Wednesday's and to anyone who showed up to help after the May 22, 2019 tornado. They were in front of one of the four houses built by River City Habitat for Humanity following the torndo. Photo by Julie Smith / News Tribune.

Akisha Walls had a feeling something was wrong, two years ago today.

"I remember feeling really sick. I had a bad feeling in my stomach," Akisha said. "It was the same feeling I had the day my mother passed away."

Akisha was 35 weeks pregnant with twins on May 22, 2019. She and her fiancé, Reggie Walls Jr., already had an 11-month-old baby in their rented home on Jackson Street, she said Friday.

She told Reggie she thought there would be a tornado.

No, he told her, there are too many hills in Jefferson City. About 11 p.m., Reggie went to Sonic to get something for her to eat.

While he was away, Akisha began to pace through their home. She had an uneasy feeling.

When he returned, she opened the door for him, and the wind blew hard against her.

As Akisha began to warn Reggie that she thought it was time to go downstairs, they heard the tornado.

"It was a monstrous noise I'll never forget," Akisha said. "I'm screaming for him to get our 11-month-old son, Little Reggie, out of the crib so we can get to the basement."

She ran through the kitchen and headed down the basement stairs. As she descended, Akisha heard a loud crash, and the basement door flew away. She huddled against a basement wall and screamed for Reggie to bring the baby.

"As he's running through the kitchen to get to the basement, the whole back of the house was coming off," Akisha said. "I just thought everything was over. I'm looking up, and I'm going to see these guys fly away from me. No."

She reached up and grabbed Reggie's hand.

"I grabbed the baby, and I curled him up underneath me," Akisha said. "And then it gets silent. Like the scariest silence you could hear. I know it's weird saying you could hear silence. It was weird."

Reggie, ever the optimist, told her they should go upstairs before a spider bites them.

"We were just in a tornado," Akisha told about 80 people gathered Friday morning on Ashley Street. "You're talking about a spider, but OK."

Listeners were able to laugh a little at her humor, having spent two years working on recovery efforts. Akisha spoke during a United Way of Central Missouri "Restoring Hope: 2 Years Later" news conference.

Reggie was the first to go back upstairs after the tornado struck, she told the group that gathered to remember the tornado.

"He screamed, 'What happened to our house?'" she said.

That night, following the tornado, she began having labor pains. The family went to the hospital, not having a clear picture of their home in the dark. Doctors were able to ease her labors, but when the family returned home, emergency officials told them they couldn't go back inside.

The couple's story isn't much different than those of other people living along the Jackson Street corridor.

The storm was an event that pushed the Jefferson City community into action.

Thousands of volunteers showed up to help clean up and repair the damage. Others fed and sheltered their fellow community members, and still more worked to replace lost housing in Jefferson City.

Most of those volunteers hadn't walked in the Walls' shoes. They weren't directly affected by the storm, said Ann Bax, president of the United Way of Central Missouri.

"But, I hope you know we all love you," Bax said. "The turnout today shows again, this community really cares."

Organizers held Friday's event outside a River City Habitat for Humanity home built as part of a Road to Recovery program, Executive Director Susan Cook-Williams said.

Planned before the COVID-19 pandemic, organizers thought they would bring in crews from across the country to help the community recover lost housing, Cook-Williams said.

Instead, the local community stepped up.

"We had hoped it would be this huge 'Blitz Build.' From all around the country, people would come," she said. "But, it turned out they didn't have to because every single nail, every single roof, door, that was installed, was done by a volunteer from this community."

Because of those volunteers, 32 people now have safe, affordable housing, including the Walls. The Walls closed on their own Habitat for Humanity home — a few blocks down the street from the Friday gathering — on June 29, 2020. They were married on the home's porch right after the key ceremony.

"As you drive down Jackson Street right now, it's amazing to see the progress," Cook-Williams said. "The new homes. The families that are inside — thriving. But, we also see that there's still more to be done."

Work continues, she added.

Habitat for Humanity will complete two homes on Jackson Street this year, along with other homes it is building in 2021.

"The community is right there with us," she said. "It's been a long two years. For those who are recovering, it never seems fast enough."

Jefferson City won't stop until the city and its people have recovered, she continued. There are families and stories (like the Walls') behind storm-related data.

Their story is one of hope and recovery, Cook-Williams said.

For his day job, Chip Webb is Ameren Missouri Central Division director. But, in May 2019, he was just getting his feet wet as the local United Way board chairman.

And he was on the ground with Ameren Missouri crews the next morning.

By noon, the power company had more than 350 linemen and others in the neighborhood, ready to start reconstruction, Webb said. Within about three days, he said, Ameren had customers back in service.

"In the last two years, we have come a long way as a community," he said. "We have grown stronger through persistence, perseverance, the hard work of the United Way, the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army, the Long-Term Recovery Committee, and many, many, many other organizations."

The anniversary of the tornado serves as a reminder of the importance of storm safety and preparedness, he pointed out.

Webb provided recommendations for community members.

Now is the time to prepare and review storm safety plans and emergency kits, he said.

"Having a plan in place will help you make smart decisions in the event of an emergency," Webb said.

Recommendations include:

Update online accounts and enroll in alerts to be notified of power outages or when crews are working in the area. Online accounts may be created at bit.ly/34jRALH.

Create a plan for seeking shelter in the event of severe weather, and familiarize all members of the household with it.

Prepare a storm kit with emergency telephone numbers, flashlights and a radio with fresh batteries, bottled water and nonperishable food items, medication, and special items for infants or elderly family members.

Also be safe during severe weather by avoiding downed power lines and keeping phones and electronics charged.

The day after the tornado, state Sen. Mike Bernskoetter said, he drove through tornado-devastated neighborhoods.

"We saw all the destruction," Bernskoetter said. "What we didn't see destroyed was our sense of community. We saw friends helping friends. Neighbors helping neighbors. And even strangers helping strangers, for that matter. People just wanted to come out and help."

That community support continued through the summer, and made him proud to live in Jefferson City, he continued. He, his wife and their youngest son went to Capital Mall, where the United Way and AmeriCorps workers organized volunteer efforts in the aftermath of the tornado.

"As we were sitting there, waiting for our assignment, I got so filled with emotion," Bernskoetter said, "because people just kept coming. It was just amazing — the people that just kept coming and coming wanting to volunteer and help out."

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