It has been a year of rebuilding, recovery and, in some ways, rebirth of a community's spirit and neighbors helping neighbors.
Days turned into weeks and weeks into months as hundreds of residents and business owners struggled to rebuild. A sign pointing to a disaster recovery center left behind in the aftermath of recovering from an EF3 twister has faded but the memories for those who experienced the tornado have not. It has been a year of rebuilding, recovery and, in some ways, rebirth of a community’s spirit and neighbors helping neighbors.
There’s an indelible spirit among rural Americans that at a time of need, they set aside their own problems and reach out for others.
Jason Bishop, owner of Bishop Glass in Eldon, embodies that spirit.
Bishop, who lives on the outskirts of Eldon, was aware of NWS tornado warnings. He was on the phone with his son who lives just a few minutes away and walked outside when the sirens began to blare.
“I’m hearing dead silence and knew something was happening,” he recalled. “My son said he could see the silhouette of the tornado when lightning flashed and then flashes and sparks as it hit transformers.”
Bishop kept his son on the phone while his son came to his house.
“I told him we needed to go into town and make sure it didn’t hit our shop,” he said.
As they drove to town, they began to see damage, getting worse and worse as they got closer to their business. There were roofs off and debris everywhere, he recalled. When they pulled up to their shop, they saw their roof was gone.
“It was chaos. It was like a bomb had gone off,” Bishop said. “We couldn’t pull into our driveway because power lines were down, a camper had blown into the area and a sign was against our building.”
Bishop has dealt with the aftermath of tornadoes and storms before, but it was different this time.
“I’m going to be honest. I’ve heard about situations like this, but I’ve never had to personally deal with it. It was actually eye opening for me. When I saw the building, I was like ‘oh my gosh.’ Now I understand what people go through. We’ve gone and helped people before, but when you see it’s your building, it’s a whole different thought that goes through your mind.”
The F-1 tornado struck Eldon about 10:56 p.m. May 22, ripping the roof from Bishop Glass, destroying inventory outside the building and pelting the outside of the building with debris.
The tornado cut a path through the heart of Eldon, tearing roofs from businesses and homes, shredding trees and scattering debris in its path. The National Weather Service estimates the tornado traveled 19.38 miles and struck Jefferson City as well. The tornado was on the ground for nearly an hour before it lifted back into the clouds.
Despite considerable damage inside and outside of his glass business at 330 Short Street, Bishop said he and his employees stepped up to help. In a tornado, anything made of glass is destroyed.
“Fortunately for us, in a difficult time, people needed our services,” he recalls. “We were trying to fix our damage and help others in the community at the same time.“We kept right on going,” Bishop said of his business.
He acquired a generator to keep his computers and electricity going as he began to address not only his damage but that of his friends and neighbors.
“The good Lord kept us going,” he added.
While Bishop and others surveyed the damage, emergency response agencies and utility crews were on the job immediately.
The community came together the morning after and began putting lives, homes, and businesses back in place. With state and federal aid not arriving until some months after, church groups, clubs, schools, and individuals dropped what they were doing and helped those in need. By morning on May 23, the Eldon Community Center had been turned into a shelter for those with nowhere to go. Volunteers walked in off the streets to lend a hand coordinating efforts to help the displaced until the Red Cross and others arrived.
While relief efforts got underway, others were trying to reach family members and friends who were in neighborhoods that were especially hard hit.
Vicki Wood, a stringer for the Lake Sun who lives in Eldon, spent a sleepless night worrying about her father, whose home in the El Donna Subdivision. Wood said her attempts to get to him were futile.
“Trees, power lines, and other debris, as well as multitudes of fire trucks, and emergency workers were jammed into the streets of the subdivision all night,” she said. “My dad called me at 10:30 telling me a tornado was coming through, and described the whole ordeal over the phone. He let me know that it sounded like a big airline jet was taking off over his house. Then he added ‘oh, there is a vacuum of air in the house, and my ears are popping.’”
Wood described walking through the devastated neighborhood during the early morning hours after the tornado looking for her dad who had gone out to check on neighbors. windows out of cars in the Manor Apartments area. I walked this scene with my camera as drizzly rain settled on the neighborhood, as others began to come outside and assess the damage.
“They didn’t look like they had had much sleep either. Roofing crews were already canvassing neighborhoods offering to help cover exposed roofs that were taking on rainwater. We found one resident who was stuck in her home with a tree completely covering her front door,” she recalled. “A daughter had driven all night from out of town to check on her elderly mother, and finding her cell phone not to be working, borrowed mine to let her husband know that she had made it safely to Eldon, and that mom was okay.” Strangers became friends and neighbors all over town, time and again that morning. Downed power lines and debris littered streets and yards. Police were patiently trying to perform the impossible task of sorting out curious lookers from survivors, treating survivors with kid gloves, and sternly running off lookers, eventually forcing them to close down the subdivision to traffic altogether.
McMillen Baseball Field where the high school had just finished their spring season and Rock Island Park had suffered significant damage. Despite school being out for the summer, students showed up ready to work. Teachers drove through neighborhoods checking on students.
For the Hart family, it has been a fire, tornado and the coronavirus. A trifecta of disasters.
But rising from the proverbial ashes, Jeremy and Jennifer Hart are the ultimate optimists. At 8:30 p.m. Friday, the new owners of Historic Randles Court in Eldon will host a sign lighting to signify they have survived challenges that may have leveled most of us.
The sign lighting is on the first anniversary of the tornado that shocked Eldon. The public is welcome to witness the historic event, but with coronavirus caution – people are urged to stay in their vehicles to practice social distancing.
Before the tornado, they survived a fire in the restaurant shortly after they bought Randles Court in September 2017. It happened two days before they were scheduled to close on property, known to many originally as Boots Tavern and Boots Cottage Court. It had taken about 18 months to make repairs and bring the building up to fire and electrical codes.
By April of 2019, the Hart’s had hosted a soft re-opening and had a grand opening planned on May 24. But, as Mother Nature can be so fickle, the tornado struck the community late in the evening of May 22, causing extensive damage to their business and home.
“It undid everything we’d done,” Jennifer recalled as she took time from painting earlier this week. “We’re basically back to everything the way it was before the tornado.”
She and Jeremy had six rooms ready to rent a year ago, and now six rooms are available once again. The last room was finished as far as construction last November, and then they had to get furniture and accessories put back in place.
They opened for business March 5 and had a few guests but COVID-19 thwarted their plans.
“We kept the place closed over the winter, and then the pandemic hit,” she said with a nervous laugh.
“It’s always been about the history of the place, and we’ve focused on the historical aspect of property,” she explained. “The rooms have a 1930s feel with vintage furniture and chenille fabric. There aren’t any TVs, so the rooms have a different feel to them.”
The impact of the tornado is something the family won’t forget. It was an unforgettable night.
Randles Court had one guest in town for the week. Everyone was watching the weather, and when the sirens sounded Jeremy went to the guest’s room and asked if he wanted to seek safety in the owners’ living quarters.
There is a safe zone tunnel of sorts in the basement of the living quarters and everyone but Jeremy made it there in time. Jeremy went back to the office window because of the rain.
“He was four feet from the window when it imploded,” Jennifer recalled. “The rest of us were in the basement. Jeremy was four feet from the window when it imploded. It was over so fast.”
He wasn’t harmed, but the rest of the building wasn’t so lucky.
“Because of how fast it happened, we thought surely there wasn’t much damage,” Jennifer said. “We never heard the ‘train’ sound. Jeremy said it sounded like nails falling down a metal slide. Our daughter’s room is on the side where the tornado struck. Her door was open and her room was full of debris. We found auto glass in her carpet.”
For a long time after the tornado, Jennifer couldn’t bring herself to go into the damaged rooms. But once the decision was made to begin construction, she and Jeremy jumped right back in.
“It helped once I saw how pretty we could make the rooms again,” she said.
An open house will be held later, once the threat of COVID-19 has passed. The Harts have put together a set of historic displays which will help visitors understand the evolution of the facility.
“We wanted to do that March 20, but…”
Now they move on to the next chapter in their lives, learning from their experiences and sharing their memories.
The storm left over 3,000 Ameren customers without power for days.
According to information provided by the city of Eldon, more than 280 homes were damaged, with 47 residences receiving major damage and another 5 were a total loss. Multiple businesses received damage, including Wood’s Supermarket that was closed for months for repairs.
At one time, more than 100 firefighters from 12 different departments converged on the small community to help along with 52 utility crews. City crews and volunteers hauled off hundreds of loads of debris.
Eldon Fire Chief and Emergency Management Director Randy Vernon led the recovery efforts. By July, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was on site doing assessments.
According to City Administrator Debbie Guthrie, Eldon has not yet received any federal disaster money. What has been accomplished has been done by the community.
“The citizens of Eldon bounced back very quickly,” Guthrie said. “We had many volunteers to help in whatever capacity that was needed cleaning up yards, streets, feeding volunteers and feeding citizens when their homes were damaged. The people of Eldon are very generous when others are in need.”
And less than a year later, in mid-March, he and the rest of the world faced another challenge – the Coronavirus.
“It hasn’t affected us. About five weeks ago, a major hailstorm hit Jefferson City and we’ve been slammed,” he said.
Lake of the Ozarks second homeowners and residents apparently decided while they were sheltered at the Lake to make repairs and upgrades. Since Bishop Glass handles windshield replacement and repairs, custom shower doors, glass door fabrication and installation and glass cutting, it’s been a better-than-expected spring.
“It’s unfortunate that some people aren’t working, and I feel for them. But we’ve been fortunate,” Bishop said.