Multimedia Journalist

Outside Jefferson City, scars from tornado visible, starting to heal

Danisha Hogue/for News Tribune
Elmer Bax’s home near Heritage Highway, shown in this November 2019 photo, is being rebuilt after damage by the May 22 tornado.

The May 22 tornado destroyed homes and businesses and uprooted trees in rural Miller and Cole counties along U.S. 54 before it ever reached Jefferson City.

About 145 buildings were damaged in unincorporated Cole County and 106 impacted in Miller County, according to data from local officials.

After the storm, making sure financial needs are met and life returns to normal has been some residents’ biggest challenge.

Outside Jefferson City limits, farmland along U.S. 54 and Route D was littered with broken trees and debris. Pieces of metal, trash and other materials remain tossed in ditches along the highway.

Elmer Bax was able to clear and use his 55-acre property near Heritage Highway after fixing his fencing weeks after the storm, he said.

Between May 22-24, he lost and found 25 cattle. All of them are doing just fine, he said last week.

Now he wants things cleared up, trees returned to the area and to start over.

“The beauty of the area is destroyed,” Bax said. “It’s going to take a few years before it’s back to normal.”

In Miller County, some farmers were unable to use their land in fear it was unsafe, Miller County Commissioner Tom Wright said.

“The biggest impact out in the rural areas, I feel, was all the trash that got littered across the fields and cow pastures,” Wright said. “People weren’t able to get that cleaned up real good, so they didn’t get to use them in their normal farming operations this summer as far as cutting hay on them and seeds. There were nails, boards, shingles, everything thrown through the tall grass; and it was impossible to clean it up.”

Some cleanup will be on hold until winter, when fields are burned down and farmers can see the trash, he said.

For many, this was their first disaster, and it’s overwhelming to go through the financial process, Wright said.

“It’s a disaster getting the disaster money,” Wright said. “It’s overwhelming what you have to do when the disaster is over.”

The good news is some homeowners are rebuilding.

Steve Barnes’ home on Route D, about 10 miles east outside Jefferson City limits, had extensive damage. The front porch was raised and set back down by the tornado, he said.

An estimated 70 trees were uprooted or snapped on his property. The destruction spread about a half-mile down Route D, especially between the 7000 and 8000 blocks.

As deputy chief of the Cole County Fire Protection District, Barnes went to the station as soon as he could that night. The fire district covers everything outside of Jefferson City limits to Route AA near Russellville. Other fire districts from Linn, California, Osage and others came to assist. He remembers the raw images of Heritage Highway, which was closed to traffic from downed lines and trees.

Repairs to roofs, including his own, and structures are near completion for him and neighbors in the area, he said.

“A lot of people went ahead and rebuilt in place — almost new houses,” Barnes said. “They might have salvaged the foundations, but the rest of the house was pretty much destroyed, the ones that were replaced completely.”

“People stayed in the community because they like the neighborhood, and that’s a good thing,” he added.

Some debris remains in ditches on county right-of-way and personal property in rural areas, he said.

“There is a lot, and it’s probably going to be a lot for quite some time, but there is progress,” Barnes said.

In the process, residents were displaced and in need of additional resources to get by.

Nearly 150 families and individuals received funds from the Eldon Ministerial Alliance’s tornado relief fund, said Bill Foglesong, treasurer and pastor of First Christian Church of Eldon.

More than half of the $33,500 donations to the fund had been used as of Nov. 15. Nearly $12,000 remains for future needs that may have been missed, he said.

Needs included help meet deductibles, deposits for new living arrangements, roof repairs, hotel stays, appliances and more.

The organization is one nonprofit the Long Term Recovery Committee distributes funds through, Foglesong said.

After it is determined what individuals are eligible to receive from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and State Emergency Management Agency, they are directed to Catholic Charities of Central and Northeast Missouri for additional resources. The committee’s governing board anonymously reviews cases for families and individuals who may not have made such a speedy recovery without help sorting through the struggles. The committee’s board distributes the funds.

“The challenge is knowing who still hasn’t gone forward and hasn’t been satisfied with insurance,” Foglesong said.

People who still need assistance should call Catholic Charities at 573-635-7719.

Volunteers and donors were the backbone of services through these hardships, but after six months, some are exhausted, he said.

“About a week ago, I had kind of exhausted my volunteer labors,” Foglesong said. “We paid for two men and a truck to help move one guy from his apartment.”

Some Eldon businesses have been back up and running for a few months, like Brew Brothers Coffee and Historic Randles Court.

The tornado damaged six rental spaces at the hotel days before its grand re-opening, co-owner Jennifer Hart said.

“We’re doing a lot better than we were six months ago,” Hart said this week.

The business located all 40 pieces of its porcelain enamel sign, which will be crafted together in time for the 2020 tourist season, she said.

“You will be able to see the scars, but that’s OK,” Hart said. “We think it’s part of the story.”

Eldon Mayor Larry Henderson considers the town blessed regardless of the damage to businesses and property. One person was injured on the night of the storm, he said.

The city created a tornado disaster relief bank account at Central Bank in Eldon for donations in May. But the Eldon Board of Aldermen voted Sept. 24 to return the funds — approximately $26,000 — to individual contributors.

“We wanted them to specifically say where they wanted the money to go,” Henderson said. “A variety of responses were given, so we said, ‘Charitable givers, you put it where you want it, and it won’t be up to the city to determine where it was given.’”

Also in Eldon, damaged McMillan Field has seen full renovations, Eldon R-1 Superintendent Matt Davis said.

The school district had been planning to renovate the baseball field before the tornado, he said.

“We are now building a new restroom and concession stand,” Davis said.

The project costs $234,000.

Three of the city’s four parks were closed after the tornado due to debris, uprooted trees and equipment damage. Local organization 100 Empowered Women donated 13 trees to Rock Island Park, Parks and Recreation Director Michael Brandt said.

Wilson Park and Apperson Park re-opened after debris was cleared from the area, he said.

The plan is for concession stands and bleachers to return to Apperson Park by the 2020 season, Brandt said.

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