Earlier in the night, tornadoes flew around southwest Missouri, near the Oklahoma border, setting off alarms in Joplin, where on the same date eight years earlier a tornado killed 161 people. Tornadoes caused damage in nearby town of Carl Junction and landed a deadly blow in the town of Golden City, where three people were killed. The Missouri State Highway Patrol identified the victims as Kenneth Harris, 86; Opal Harris, 83; and Betty Berg, 56. Berg’s husband, 56-year-old Mark Berg, also suffered serious injuries in the storm, Ozarks First reported.
“We were very fortunate last night that we didn’t have more injuries than what we had, and that we didn’t have more fatalities across the state,” Gov. Mike Parson (R) said at news conference.
President Trump tweeted that Missouri residents are “strong and resilient."
The destruction in Jefferson City is the latest in a week of severe storms across the central United States. There were more than 60 tornado reports and nearly 400 river gauges in the region had exceeded flood stage as of Wednesday, resulting in several deaths and inundated communities, The Washington Post’s Jason Samenow reported.
Across Jefferson City on Thursday, the power was out, the gas had been turned off and dazed residents wandered the streets, stepping around the fallen trees that now obstructed their neighborhood streets.
In the center of East Dunklin Street, a windblown Mickey Mouse stuffed animal sat soaking wet. Twenty yards away was a home with no roof. Fallen power lines draped the pavement, and an uprooted cross walk sign lay on a front lawn. Broken windows outnumbered intact ones.
“It’s devastation right now,” Jerri Bowles, who lives in the state capital, said Thursday. “Jefferson City hasn’t had a tornado in many, many, many years, and we all had this false sense of security that tornadoes just don’t happen here. So last night we had our eyes opened.”
Before midnight Wednesday, the National Weather Service had urged Jefferson City residents to “shelter now!” as the tornado moved at 40 mph through the central Missouri region and shot debris about 13,000 feet into the air.
Eric Wright of Jefferson City took refuge in his basement as the tornado went by, but not before he caught a glimpse of the storm.
“It was this neon, turquoise green,” he said Thursday afternoon, across the street from his damaged house. “It was beautiful in a scary way.”
Melvin Eldridge, who lives in the same neighborhood, woke to leaves hitting his face. The tornado had blown out part of his air conditioner, exposing his first-story apartment to gusts of wind.
“It sounded like a train was coming,” Eldridge recalled, adding that he waited in his bathtub for the storm to pass.
Nearby, Steve James woke his two sons and ushered them from the second floor to ground level.
As he reached the bottom of the stairs, the house started shaking. The family hid in a first-floor bathroom, huddled in the tub. Wind blew loose a door that landed on the steps James had just descended, and a metal railing leading to the front porch broke from the gusts. The front windows shattered.
“How can 15, 20 seconds cause this?” he said Thursday afternoon while sitting in front of his damaged house.
Despite the widespread damage, authorities announced with relief that injuries in Jefferson City had been minimal, that there were no fatalities and no reports of missing people.
Jefferson City Police Lt. David Williams said that a three-square-mile area received the brunt of the damage from the storm and that authorities were working through the night and into Thursday, moving door to door ensuring residents were safe.
“It’s a chaotic situation right now,” Williams said. “We are trying to identify the people that need our help the most.”
Residents appeared to have heeded the warning sirens, Jefferson City Mayor Carrie Tergin told CNN, which may have prevented mass casualties.
“People were saying that they took cover, and they followed the precautions,” Bowles said. “That’s what saved lives. There’s buildings up there that don’t have walls left. You can see into rooms. There’s beds on top of my office building from the neighborhood.”
Michael Moehn, the president of Ameren Missouri, the local utility, said at a midday news conference that about 2,000 people were without electricity in Jefferson City and another 2,300 were powerless in Eldon, about 30 miles southwest of the capital. Close to 200 electrical poles were broken, downed or damaged, and about 250 utility workers from around the state had been mobilized. The power grid had sustained “significant infrastructure damage,” Moehn said.
Authorities warned, however, that as power is restored, utilities in damaged homes and businesses could be a hazard and residents to resist the urge to begin cleanup before authorities are able to assess the structural integrity of their homes and businesses.
Some government buildings were damaged, but the state Capitol building and governor’s mansion appear to have escaped unscathed. Nonessential government workers were asked to stay home from work.
Kayleigh De Rosa, a resident at the Hawthorne Apartments complex in Jefferson City, shared a cellphone video with KRCG that showed how her home had been blown out by the tornado, leaving her family homeless.
The family’s balcony was now on her mother’s car, and her next-door neighbor’s home was equally dismantled by the sheer force of the natural disaster.
“As you can see over here, my bedroom window and everything is completely blown through, bricks everywhere,” she said. “It’s bad, guys.”
By Thursday afternoon, some Jefferson City residents were heading to shelters, looking for places to stay the night. Bowles went to Memorial Baptist Church, where the Missouri Baptist Disaster Relief volunteers set up its home base. The group sent out teams to help residents, and Bowles prepared sandwiches, snacks and drinks for workers and anyone who needed food.
“Our city needs us,” she said. “And that’s where we’re going to be.”
Bella and Mettler reported from Washington.