By Patrick Winderl/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
A former Havre couple escaped injury late last month when their town in Nebraska was partially leveled by a tornado.
Railroader Armin Williams Jr. was on a fishing trip in Montana when the tornado struck. His wife, Doris, was at home, cowering inside a closet.
The twister struck the small community of Hallam on the evening of May 22, killing one person and injuring dozens of others. The storm forced the evacuation of all 276 residents and prompted Nebraska Gov. Mike Johanns to declare a state of emergency in Hallam and the surrounding areas.
When reached by telephone on Wednesday, the Williamses were attempting to salvage their belongings from their home.
Federal Emergency Management Agency officials and insurance inspectors were examining their house to see whether it can be repaired. The house was one of the few in Hallam that was not destroyed.
"What we're waiting on now is to check some of the beams and the foundation to see if it has shifted," Armin said. "I'm still missing a rototiller, my camper shell and the roof of the garage."
Even if the house can be repaired, it will be three to five months before the Williamses can move back in, he said. For now, the couple is staying in a Super 8 Motel in a nearby town. They plan to rent an apartment until their house is fixed, he added.
The Williamses' two adult daughters - Ileana Jolly and Mary Bond - also live in Hallam. Both lost their homes.
The family moved to Nebraska from Havre in 1992 when Armin and his brother Larry were transferred by Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway. Larry moved to the town of Wilbur, while Armin settled in Hallam.
Over the past 12 years, Armin has seen several tornadoes near his home.
"I've watched 'em buzz by several times, but this is the first one that ever hit town," he said.
The night the tornado struck, Doris was on the phone with Ileana, who was visiting family in Lincoln 25 miles away. A storm had settled over Hallam, with howling winds driving rain and hail sideways. Tornadoes had struck the western part of the state earlier in the evening, and the inclement weather was all over the news.
Ileana wanted to know whether she should come home or stay the night in Lincoln.
Doris told her to stay put. The storm was bad, she said.
Suddenly, the wind stopped howling and everything became eerily still.
The calm before the storm.
"I could hear the silence and I said, 'I need to get off the phone,' and that's when I ran to the closet," Doris said.
The power went out, and the house was plunged into darkness. Armed with a flashlight and radio, Doris huddled in the closet and waited.
Moments later, the tornado hit Hallam - hard.
"I was in the closet for what seemed like forever," Doris said. "Everything was so loud - the wind and the rain and the hail, thunder and lightning. It seemed like the rain would never let up. I heard this popping noise. It sounded like gunshots. The wind was so loud. It's undescribable."
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the assault on Hallam ended and the twister moved east.
Waiting a while longer, Doris crawled out of the closet, unsure what to expect.
The damage to her house was incredible.
Doors that had been locked tight had disappeared - ripped off their hinges. Debris was everywhere - shards of broken glass, pieces of wood, photographs, calendars. Everything that had been neatly assembled in the home was strewn across the floor. Every cupboard had been flung open, though strangely, their contents were untouched.
Stunned, Doris moved to where her front door used to be and looked out. There, she could see a 2-mile-long caravan of ambulances, firetrucks and police cars waiting on the outskirts of Hallam.
She signaled for help using her flashlight, but the vehicles didn't move.
"I was wondering, 'Why aren't they coming in to help us?'" Doris said. "'Why are they sitting there?'"
She would later learn that downed trees and live power lines were preventing emergency workers from entering the town. They'd been ordered not to enter Hallam until the power grid had been shut off.
Doris made her way to her neighbors' house in the dark. What she saw terrified her.
"Their house had blown away. There were two doors and two walls standing, and everything else was gone," she said.
The family had survived. Their young children were soaked from the rain and shivering. Doris retrieved clothes and blankets from her own house for them.
The devastation was too much for one little girl to comprehend.
"She kept saying, 'What happened? What happened? I want to go to Grandma's house,' and I said, 'Honey, your grandma's house is gone,'" Doris said.
Using flashlights to navigate their way around shattered trees, broken glass and pieces of houses, the group looked for survivors.
"You couldn't tell one street from another," Doris said. "We walked three blocks to Main Street and I just started crying. Our Methodist church was rubble. My friend's house was turned on a 45-degree angle. It was still standing, it was just twisted sideways. Everything was rubble."
By then, firefighters, paramedics, police officers, Red Cross workers, federal disaster crews and soldiers from the Nebraska National Guard were working to treat injuries and locate missing relatives.
Rescue crews tried to stop people from searching the wreckage for missing family members and pets, fearful that weakened structures might collapse and cause more injuries.
The National Guard ordered the town evacuated.
Buses were already taking residents to a shelter in Lincoln, and many townsfolk didn't know who was missing and who had already left.
Doris described the scene as "chaos."
When asked by rescue workers if she wanted to get on a bus for Lincoln, Doris refused, saying she did not want to leave without finding her younger daughter, Mary, who had been at her own home in Hallam when the tornado struck.
For two long hours, she waited for word of her daughter.
"I was looking at faces in the crowd, trying to find her. It was just awful," Doris said.
Unbeknownst to her, emergency workers had twice tried to get Mary and her young daughter on a bus, and Mary also had refused.
About 1 a.m., Doris found her standing beside a firetruck.
Lying in a laundry basket was Doris' 1-year-old granddaughter, fast asleep.
Two hours later, they left Hallam on a school bus and went to Southwest High School in Lincoln, where the Red Cross had set up an emergency shelter. Ileana was waiting for them.
The next day, Hallam residents returned home, where the midday sun cast light on the wreckage of their community.
"It was terrible to go through. I think 85 to 95 percent of the houses are gone," Doris said.
Armin was fishing the Missouri River with relatives, including his mother, Lily, who lives in North Havre, when he got word of the tornado. He called his wife to see if everything was OK.
"When my husband finally called me I tried to explain how bad the storm was, and he didn't believe me," Doris said. "I needed something and he told me, 'Go to garage and look on the right-hand side,' and I said, 'Honey, the garage is gone. The trees are gone, the downtown is flat.'"
Armin cut his vacation short and immediately drove back to Hallam. When he finally arrived, he was shocked at what he saw.
"Of 150-odd homes, there's about eight or nine or 10 that are still standing. Even the brick homes were destroyed," he said. "The big brick churches were leveled. The downtown area that was about a block and half long, the only things left standing are a bank and the American Legion building."
Although the Williams' house fared better than most, the damage was considerable, Armin said.
"Several doors got blown out, and there was some water damage. All my gutters are ripped off. My siding was sucked away. The garage is gone, of course. I lost a few shingles. It looks like a war zone here," he said.
Still, the couple consider themselves fortunate.
"My house is still standing. It's not perfect, but at least I have four walls and a roof," Doris said. "And these people have nothing. Houses that had stood here for years are gone. Their houses are nothing but rubble."
Amid all the heartache of witnessing their town destroyed, of watching neighbors rummage through their collapsed houses for keepsakes and photographs, of knowing that the town of Hallam will never be the same, the Williamses have found hope in the face of disaster.
Volunteer help has arrived by the busload, some people traveling 75 miles or more, Doris said. The Red Cross and Salvation Army have made arrangements for displaced families, and residents have banded together to rebuild what they lost, she said.
Doris also found Patches - her 16-year-old cat - hiding beneath a dresser, scared but alive. Although it took some coaxing to get her out from beneath the dresser, Patches seemed to recover at the hotel, Doris said.
"She was so happy to see me," she said.