JEFFERSON CITY -Lt. Gov. Joe Maxwell knelt down on the concrete garage floor surrounded by fourth graders with flag bandanas tied around their necks and dialed a frightened little girl's home phone number on his cell phone.
"Hello Mr. McFarland. This is Lt. Gov. Joe Maxwell. I'm here in the basement of the Capitol with your daughter, and I just wanted to let you know that she is safe."
As tornado sirens blared through the halls of the Capitol building around 5 pm Tuesday, business of the House and Senate was abruptly cut off and thousands of people funnelled down the stairs to the garage and basement.
Maxwell was in a meeting with his staff when he heard the sirens, and as he was evacuating he ran into a tour group from Bryant Elementary School in Independence, including hysterical fourth grader Ashley McFarland. He said he thought calling her parents was the best thing to do to help her calm down.
With her asthma inhaler in hand Ashley burst out laughing when Maxwell got her Dad on the phone.
"Knowing my family was safe made it better," she said. Ashley's home town was one of the last hit by Sunday's severe weather.
Maxwell seemed relieved when his staff informed him that his own family was safe as well.
Lawmakers and lobbyists took advantage of their captive audience to hammer out compromises and forge ahead on legislation.
"Nothing like an evacuation to get legislation done," said Sen. Jon Dolan, R-St. Charles.
He used the time to talk with his trapped peers about his transportation accountability bill, and he left the basement feeling confident it would pass when they got back to debate.
"In a way we are very serious, and in a way we've never had this big of a meeting yet this year," Dolan said.
With little time left to figure out the state budget, a committee of House and Senate members designated to come to a compromise simply moved their meeting to the basement and carried on with business.
Columbia Democrat Jeff Harris compared the storm outside to the budget turbulence going on inside.
"It's a literal and metaphoric tornado," Harris said just before he snuck upstairs to his office to retrieve his budget notes so he could study. One on the benefits of being a freshman representative is that he didn't have to go far. Harris's office is on the first floor.
Despite the storm, significant progress was made on the twelve budget bills, which must be passed by the end of the week.
Sen. Ken Jacob, D-Columbia, wasn't disturbed by the hour and a half that he had to spend in the basement. He spent most of that time standing by the glass-door entrance watching the storm.
"I feel fine," Jacob said mockingly patting his chest. "It's just a storm."