After the storm: One year after the Good Friday tornado, recovery continues
In a near-empty parking lot, Vicki Adams steps out of her car and looks up.
One year ago, the top of the three-story brick church on Florissant Road held everything she’d worked for. In the red room of the Metamo4ic Math Center sat exhibits that told the story of math, numbers and measurement. Down the hall, in the orange room, was a place to explore geometry and algebra. The yellow room held space for discovering the intersections of math, art and music. And in the green room, games took math off paper and on to the floor.
Then, on Good Friday, tornadoes hopped across St. Louis, wiping out neighborhoods, businesses and 100-year-old trees along the way. People in Ferguson have recovered, mostly. There’s sunshine now where the shade from those old trees once fell. Some houses and business got facelifts, some total reconstruction. And some are just gone.
Ferguson isn’t the same, and neither is Adams’ math center.
It's a bit like math, perhaps. You take something away, you add something, and the result is something different than when you began.
It’s true, at least, for Adams, executive director and founder of the nonprofit math center. For four years before the storm, the math center lived on the top floor of the First Baptist Church. There’s a new home now, just down the road, and while it’s full of space and possibilities, it also needs a total renovation.
At the church, a few windows on top are covered still, and in one corner window, in front of brown paper, a white sign with black letters reads CHESS. It’s one of Adams’ old signs from the math center.
“I loved this home,” she says, standing outside. “Part of me wished we could have been here forever. But I’m so thankful for the start that they gave us.”
She’s quiet for a moment, then gets into her car to drive down the road to the math center’s new spot.
April 22, 2011, began as a happy weekend for many in St. Louis. Families were coming together for Easter weekend, and at her Ferguson home, Adams and her grown children were baking a pizza while the storm approached.
Adams, who taught for 10 years across the region, left to start the math center, which opened in 2006, when she found anxiety about math was a problem not just for students, but also for teachers and parents. At the math center, she created a place where math could be explored, played with and enjoyed.
That night, Adams and her family ate while watching the news. They finally headed to the basement with her dog, Darcy. The lights flickered, then died, and Darcy began shaking.
This is not good, Adams thought. And it wasn’t.
According to the National Weather Service, a total of five tornadoes hit parts of the St. Louis area that evening, including an EF4 that tore across 21 miles, hitting Maryland Heights, Bridgeton, St. Ann, Ferguson and Lambert St. Louis International Airport.
“Remarkably,” the overview continues, “there were no fatalities with this event.”
But there was extensive damage.
The St. Louis Beacon story reported after the storm that the Missouri Department of Insurance received nearly 7,000 claims from residents after the Good Friday tornado. Homeowners insurance claims made up 4,490, auto insurance made up 2,245, commercial property claims 240, and buildings with large or total losses were 137.
In Ferguson, Adams’ home sustained roof and chimney damage.
“We all came out after the tornado and then I looked at the kids and I said, ‘Oh my God, what about the math center?’”
They made their way to First Baptist Church. Out front, a van lay on its side. The roof of the church was peeled off, but around the back of the building, where the math center lived, things didn’t look so bad.
The next day, they learned there was a hole in the roof, but the center was intact. If it didn’t rain, Adams thought, they’d be OK.
For the next five days, that’s all it did. Adams and her board pulled everything out of the building because they were warned the roof might collapse.
And box by box, the math center became homeless.
“It was very much a part of me,” she says. “It was just three and a half years of work almost completely undone right before your eyes.”
The old space had been perfect, with displays flowing naturally from one room to the next.
It didn’t make sense to move to another temporary home, says Paula Stewart, program manager with the math center. Though, looking back now, she did imagine then that things would happen much faster than they have.
“We had false hope that it would happen overnight,” she says.
And while the storm might have altered things in moments, the recovery, she says, has been much more of a process.
“It just changed everything.”
There was no money to buy a new center, says Adams, who put most of her retirement into the old center. But an old bowling alley in Ferguson might offer a space, if the owner would donate it. It was totally gutted, in need of complete repairs, but could offer 15,000 square feet of room for the math center.
On Aug. 17, Adams prayed: “Lord, if this is where you want this building to be, just make it happen.” On Aug. 18, she got the call. The building was theirs.
The Math Center's new address: 123 S. Florissant Road. The P.O. Box, randomly assigned: 10987.
It was officially donated on 11-11-11. Oh, and here’s one more number. It needs $750,000 in repairs.
Adams drives down Florissant Road, past a new Little Caesar's Pizza that replaced the one torn down during the tornado, past a neighborhood that was hit hard, and others barely touched.
“Joplin, when you saw the devastation and when you knew a car was 10 miles away from where it was, it’s very visual. Here, it’s just hit and miss and it’s hard to see the damage,” she says. “But it was there.”
In Ferguson, about 300 houses were damaged from the tornado, says John Shaw, city manager. Six houses, which were abandoned, have been demolished so far, and 25 houses still need repairs.
The tornado "changed the topography,” Shaw says. “It ripped out 100-year-old trees that just can’t be replaced and was an enormous strain on the homeowners, to say the least.”
Some homeowners are still dealing with insurance companies, some walked away, and some didn’t have insurance or the resources to recover.
“I think definitely the work is still ongoing,” says Shannon Howard, editor of NOCO, an online magazine focusing on north St. Louis County.
“We’re not totally there yet,” agrees Dwayne James, a Ferguson city councilman. “We still have some recovery to do.”
But they see some gains after the tornado, too. One affected neighborhood started a community association, getting neighbors to work together.
“Before you always just got into your driveway and closed your garage door, but when something like this happens, it brings people together,” James says.
Shaw says that the city is still working with FEMA finalizing documents, but when the storm hit, the city knew how to work through the process because of updated emergency planning and a kind of test run from an ice storm several years before.
He couldn’t believe all the support from municipalities, police departments, fire departments and residents from all across the metro.
“It’s great to know that, despite all our little differences, when something bad happens, everyone does come together. That’s very encouraging for our region.”
Conrad Bowers, mayor of neighboring Bridgeton, repeats that sentiment. $90,000 was raised in a relief fund, and at this point, he says, only two houses have been abandoned, and he hopes at least one might be salvaged.
Well into the summer, volunteers and municipalities worked in both cities. Now, one year later, at least some work remains.
“We’re still living this,” James says. “We still have to figure out what we can do to keep this community strong.”
Here and there, he says, blue tarps still patch roofs. And it’s hard to see the open spaces where Ferguson’s old trees once stood.
For Howard, it’s a sad sight, too. “It was just pure shade,” she says. “And now it’s pure sun.”
Adams pulls into an empty parking lot and walks toward the glass front doors of the old bowling alley. They’re covered in white paper, tearing at the sides.
Inside, her keys jingle as she heads for the light box. A musty smell fills the space.
“This building is very, very rough,” she says, clicking one, two, three switches and adding light to the dark, damp space.
“This building apparently had some major mold issues,” she says, and that's why it was gutted. Now, the drainage here is a huge issue and needs to be fixed first. Then, there’s the matter of replacing the roof. Adams has been told it could last three or four years, but she’s not waiting.
“I have moments when I think, I should have just given up when I had the chance,” she says. “But I never have moments when I’m ready to quit.”
Like other parts of Ferguson, the Good Friday tornado changed the Metamo4ic Math Center. It was no longer a place where kids could come, but instead had to change its programming and hit the road, heading to schools.
Adams, who began working on a doctorate before the tornado, turned in her dissertation recently. She entered the Youth Bridge competition at Washington University, which helped the nonprofit develop a business plan. The center was a finalist, but didn't receive any funding. She’s working with an architect, she knows where the exhibits will go and that a Fibonacci golden spiral will tell the history of mathematicians. The math center has an ongoing capital campaign to raise money for the new home.
But in the dark, rough space, she can’t really envision the math center’s new spot just yet.
“When I saw First Baptist, I saw it,” she says. “This one not so much. I think I’m way too overwhelmed. I think I’m still in absolutely utter shock that this is ours, and, yeah, the math center will be here.”
“It’s very discouraging, at times,” says Stewart, the program manager. “But I know that if that building was not supposed to be ours, it would not have been given to us. You have to go out on faith.”
It’s something Adams feels, too. The tornado came and took away the space she’d created. Now, she has a new problem to solve. It’s isn’t one of simple math, this time, and will probably require a lot of unknown factors: community, money, vision, and yes, faith.
One year later, she's still working toward the solution.
Read the Beacon's coverage from last year. The red line, from NOAA data represents the tornado's track across the area. The icons each represent a story from the days after the tornado struck.