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Tornado causes heavy damage to Chevy store in Missouri

For Missouri dealer Kevin Riley, the rebuilding begins now. And there will be a lot of it after Riley Chevrolet in Jefferson City sustained immense damage to its vehicle inventory and buildings from a tornado last week.

The twister damaged all of the about 750 vehicles at the dealership, flipping them around the lot, and it destroyed Riley Chevrolet's service department and damaged the main showroom. That the tornado hit the dealership close to midnight on Wednesday, May 22, was a blessing, Riley said.

"There definitely would have been casualties or serious injuries in this building" if the storm had struck when the store was open, Riley told Automotive News.

With the dealership empty, no one was injured. The National Weather Service reported the tornado moved through the area at 40 mph and with wind speeds of up to 160 mph, sending debris 13,000 feet into the air. No deaths were reported in Jefferson City, though the Associated Press reported that three people were killed when a storm roared through Golden City, Mo., more than 150 miles southwest.

Riley, president of the dealership and a co-owner with his two brothers, rode out the tornado in a shelter at his home after warnings sounded for a "catastrophic storm." After the danger had passed, he went to the dealership around 12:30 a.m.

"It was just breathtaking," Riley said. "The electricity was out, and it was dark. So you had to take a walk to even comprehend what had just taken place."

The tornado skipped over the Toyota store on the same site before touching down and leaving a path of destruction, he said.

"It destroyed a line of vehicles and then slammed into the Chevrolet store, crushed it down and moved the building halfway across the service center's floor."

The floor looked like it had been wiped clean, he said. "Automotive lifts pulled out of the floor — the force of it is just mind-boggling," Riley said.

Images showed Riley Chevrolet's lot with hundreds of cars and trucks flipped upside down, on their sides and piled on top of each other, their windows shattered or blown out.

Insurance adjusters are assessing the loss, Riley said. While the dealership is closed, the Riley brothers are working on a plan for a temporary sales location to open as soon as possible.

Dealerships across the U.S. have reached out to offer help and condolences to the Riley family.

"Because of what we're going through, I haven't been able to get around to the texts and emails to say thanks and tell them we're going to be OK and back in business," Riley said.

Kyle Riley, Kevin Riley's nephew and the Internet director at Riley Chevrolet, said he has received "Facebook messages from people out of state who want to buy cars from us when we get back up and going."

Insurance is expected to take care of expenses for the store's 150-plus employees while they're not working. Kevin Riley said none of his family's personal property was damaged, and he hasn't heard of damage to the property of his employees, whom he kept in touch with through text messages during the storm.

"A big part of our mission statement is, 'Treat your customers and co-workers just as you would treat your family members,' " Kyle Riley said. "Our staff really believes in what we do here and in the community. We're beyond blessed with a staff like that."

Chevrolet also is involved in the recovery plans.

"We have been coordinating with the dealer and are assisting them with inventory assessments and off-site approvals for temporary services during this difficult time," a Chevrolet spokeswoman told Automotive News in an email.

For the Rileys, the tornado's destruction was unlike anything the family had seen in its 83 years in business. But the family vowed to rebuild.

Kevin Riley, along with his brothers, Carey and Mike Riley, took over the store from their father, Donald B. Riley, in 1987. Their father had built the Chevrolet dealership on the site in 1970, and the brothers expanded it and built the nearby Toyota store six years ago.

The business was started by the brothers' grandfather, Donald F. Riley, in 1936 with a loan from GM Motors Holding.

It's unclear whether any other dealerships in the area were damaged. The Missouri Automobile Dealers Association did not respond to requests for comment.

Rick Ford, CEO of RFJ Auto Partners, said his three Jefferson City stores a few miles from Riley Chevrolet were unaffected by the tornado.

Ford said he communicated with his general managers at the Honda, Nissan and Hyundai dealerships via text messages to keep updated on the storm and that none of his employees were injured.

"We didn't sustain any damage," Ford told Automotive News. "We were fortunate."

Melissa Burden contributed to this report.

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