Jefferson City 911 Communications Supervisor Angie Stiefermann is seen between computer monitors Friday as she pays close attention to the information in front of her while on an emergency call. Stiefermann was on duty the night of the tornado and answered numerous calls about lines down, house​s​ destroyed.
Photo by Julie Smith /News Tribune.

One month ago, Jefferson City and Cole County went through an experience many thought they would never see here, as an EF-3 tornado with winds as high as 160 mph cut a path of destruction of nearly 20 miles.

Emergency responders train for situations like this, but a real emergency presents unique and unexpected challenges.

Angela Stiefermann, 911 Communications supervisor, said they knew the storm was coming but anticipated it would hit the east side of the county — and they were not prepared for so much devastation.

“We were overwhelmed in the center with calls, people pleading for help who have just lost absolutely everything,” Stiefermann said. “There was a call from a girl at Hawthorne Park Apartments where I encouraged her to get to an inner room, and she said, ‘Ma’am, I have no roof on my whole apartment.'”

Jefferson City Police K-9 officer Jeremy Bowman said events unraveled so quickly there was only time to react, not to think about things.

“My dog was barking and clawing at my vehicle doors just minutes before the tornado struck, as if he knew something wasn’t right,” Bowman said. “His behavior made me think that the tornado was fast approaching — and he wasn’t wrong. At one point, while attempting to find cover in my patrol vehicle, I had a large roof fall from the sky and land in the middle of East McCarty Street, shattering into pieces directly in front of me. This was the time that I knew it was bad.”

Zac Grace is a Columbia firefighter and member of Missouri Task Force 1, which responded to Jefferson City after the tornado. Grace grew up in the Jefferson City area and remembers getting a call from his mom that night about the storm.

“Initially it didn’t click in my brain how bad this could be, and then I came through town on U.S. 54 — and that’s when it really hit, seeing all the debris,” Grace said. “Being in your hometown during a disaster is surreal and hard to put into words how it feels.”

Two nights before the tornado hit, Jefferson City Fire Department Capt. Casey Hughes, who lives near Tebbetts, had 10-12 trees on his property knocked over by straight-line winds.

“The damage I had on my property was nothing like what I saw here in town,” Hughes said. “I’ve lived here a long time and always heard because of our topography, Jefferson City had an immunity from being hit by a tornado, even though there have been near misses in the past.”

Stiefermann got off work around 9 a.m. the following day. The Police Department was on the immediate western edge of the damaged area.

“On the lot was a lot of debris, and several operators had damage to their vehicles,” she said. “It was amazing at how every two or three cars would have a broken window or other damage, and cars in between were completely fine. It would be days before I would really see the seriously damaged areas of town.”

Bowman remembers how streets were littered with debris after the storm moved through.

“While en route to help those dialing 911, it became difficult because you couldn’t drive designed routes on the road to the addresses,” Bowman said. “At one point, responding to people trapped in debris, I had to drive over curbs and even drove over a shingled roof in the middle of the road to get to them.

“Simply put, it was unreal.”

In task force training, Grace said, they’re told to always be prepared to be called to go out to a scene.

“I threw a bag in my truck before I left Columbia, and I didn’t make it to my mom and dad’s house in Jefferson City before I was notified we had been activated,” Grace said. “I called headquarters and told them I was already in Jefferson City.”

Grace was part of the Missouri Task Force 1 recon team — the first team members to get to a site and evaluate what is needed.

“The three of us were sent to Hawthorne Apartments, and that’s when it really hit home how widespread the damage was. And I knew it was going to be a long day,” Grace said.

Hughes has been on the task force since 2011. His first deployment was to respond to the aftermath of the Joplin tornado.

“In that time, I’ve gone to many other states and am used to getting alerts saying we’re heading to go to somewhere far away, but when it’s your own city, that sets you back,” Hughes said.

Stiefermann has been in law enforcement for 26 years and said this was the most devastating event she’s had to work.

“We had maximum staffing in the 911 center and were still so overwhelmed with calls that Boone County was taking our overflow,” Stiefermann remembers. “They had nowhere to go with those calls. Instead of asking people, ‘Where is your emergency?’, it came down to asking if they had a life-or-death emergency. Those who were not in immediate danger of injury were asked to call back so we could free lines up for anyone who needed immediate medical or fire response.”

Bowman also said the tornado’s aftermath was unlike anything he’d been through in his 17 years in law enforcement, but he remembers how residents reacted after the storm.

“During stressful times in the aftermath, I witnessed citizens (who had their own homes destroyed) helping others in need and offering help to first responders,” Bowman said. “I had so many people ask, ‘What can I do to help?’ This speaks volumes about what our community truly offers. Seeing the strength of the neighborhoods helping each other transformed my tiredness into absolute resolve — and helped to fuel me through long shifts.”

Looking back on that night and early morning, Stiefermann feels the 911 center did the best they could.

“The call load was beyond anything we have handled at one time,” Stiefermann said. “Whenever we received phone calls of someone trapped or severely injured, we normally would stay on the phone with them until help arrives. During the tornado, we had to get addresses and tell them we’d get someone to them when we could, then disconnected. When something like this happens, you do what you have been trained to do: Stay calm, answer the call and send whatever help you can. We all worked very hard and communicated well as a team.”

One thing Grace took away from his deployment was the way various law enforcement agencies work together in a crisis situation.

“We come from various agencies to make up the task force,” Grace said. “We all worked together to accomplish a common goal.”

For the first time in his eight years with the task force, Hughes said, he had to turn down an assignment because he knew his hometown needed him to do his job as a firefighter.

“I knew I had to go to work, and the great thing was I knew the task force had our backs,” Hughes said. “On top of that, the task force was already on alert for flooding, and we had members in Springfield and here ready to go for potential rescues.

“Between flooding and the tornado, we were asking ourselves, ‘What’s going on in Central Missouri?'”

Stiefermann remembers the kindness she received from fellow 911 operators across the state.

“When I was finally able to get off the console, I noticed a text from the executive director of Jasper County (Joplin) Emergency Services checking on us,” Stiefermann said. “I told her how helpless we felt to reach everyone, and she told me, ‘People will take care of their neighbors. You guys are doing all you can. People understand that, and they will step up for one another.'”

May 22 was the eighth anniversary of the Joplin tornado. Stiefermann and two other operators from Jefferson City had deployed there to help them in their communications centers.

“She was right about people helping people, and through all the devastation there have been so many blessings to our community,” Stiefermann said. “We were overwhelmed by expressions and gifts of appreciation given to our agency. We’re still eating donated snacks!”

Bowman said he was not surprised at the community response after the tornado.

“I’ve always believed that police officers are a mirrored image of the community they serve — and my experience with the tornado and aftermath proved just that,” Bowman said. “The community has shined in helping in so many ways, and the strength of Jefferson City could not be broken.”

​By Jeff Haldiman | News Tribune​