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Hallam, 10 years ago

Residents of Hallam faced a monumental rebuilding after a tornado hit the community on May 22, 2004.

She could feel it in her head -- the pressure building and her ears popping over and over -- as if she were seated in an ascending airplane. But she was underground, balled up in the corner of her basement.

Through the popping, Donna Richey couldn’t hear much else.

She didn’t hear the roar of the EF4 tornado. Nor the crash when the 200 mph winds flipped her van on its roof. Nothing of the log that smashed through her office and toppled three floor-to-ceiling bookshelves.

Like so much that came in the weeks after the May 2004 Hallam tornado, the sounds just seemed to blur together. For Richey, the 10 years since the tornado have been a blur, as well.

“Ten years is such a mile marker, but it doesn’t feel like it,” she said this week. “It seems like just yesterday.”

Though that day -- May 22, 2004 -- is ingrained in the minds of the 270 Hallam residents who went through it, the town would rather look forward, said Village Board member Lauree Ebbers. 

"So many people here do not want to recall or celebrate it," she said. "They want to move on."

Moving on means remembering but not dwelling on the numbers from that day -- the one dead and 37 injured, the 150 homes destroyed and 57 severely damaged. The 70 residents who moved away.

It means celebrating the five recent new building requests for single family homes and welcoming those young families into "The Little Town with the Big Heart." It means using the auditorium, the fire hall, and the other buildings that were rebuilt since the storm.

Though the town in southwest Lancaster County is inviting residents to come share their tornado stories at an open house Thursday night at the fire hall, Hallam will not otherwise mark the event. Rather, the focus will be on Hallam Days, the town-wide celebration in August. 

For weather buffs, that Saturday 10 years ago stands out for a few reasons. Nebraska has never seen so many tornadoes in one day, and until last year, all of Tornado Alley hadn't seen a tornado wider than the 2.5 mile-wide swath of destruction around Hallam. The severity was also rare -- less than 1 percent of tornadoes reach an EF4 rating or higher.

Ken Dewey, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln climatologist, said it's amazing that the number of fatalities wasn't greater.

"Nebraskans -- particularly rural folk -- are very proactive when it comes to storm safety," Dewey said. 

For residents of more urban areas, however, Dewey has a warning: don't assume that a city is safe. A tornado's path is random, he said, and there is nothing protecting Lincoln.

"People assume just because they've been missed in the past, they are safe," Dewey said. "That's like driving drunk and assuming just because you've never had an accident before, it won't happen."

It did happen in May 1957. An EF2 tornado entered west Lincoln and moved over what is now 27th and Superior streets. In April 1957, what began as an EF4 tornado also moved north of town.

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Lancaster County had 40 recorded tornadoes from 1950 through last year, giving it a density ranking (the number of tornadoes per 1,000 square miles) of 47.7.

That's about average for a Nebraska county. The most active counties for tornadoes are in central Nebraska, with Hall County topping the state with 130 tornadoes per 1,000 square miles since 1950.

Thayer County is second among Nebraska counties with a density ranking of 102.6.

Those numbers are just the luck of the draw, Dewey said.

"These are random events," he said. "No one even tries to predict tornado trends or frequencies."

Random, however, shouldn't be confused with surprise. Rarely do tornadoes rip through towns without advance warning, Dewey said.

Meteorologists can look at weather patterns and see the elements in place days ahead of time, as they did in predicting the outbreak of tornadoes that hit Nebraska on Mother's Day of this year. Though meteorologists can't predict a tornado's time or location in advance, they can narrow its potential.

In Nebraska, nearly two-thirds of all tornadoes have occurred between the hours of 4 p.m. and 8 p.m., according to Dewey's data.

Hallam residents remember looking at the sky that day 10 years ago. Clouds so dark they were almost black.

That darkness will be in the back of Jody Jorgensen's mind on Thursday, though she'll remember the light too. There was so much light in the weeks that followed, when the community gathered around her and her three children, then in elementary school.

The family had just moved in two and a half weeks prior; she hadn't even made the first mortgage payment. The pictures on the walls were newly hung, the drawers newly filled and organized. 

As the storm was brewing, Jorgensen left town with her children. When they came back, they only had half of a house and hardly anything worth salvaging. 

Now 10 years later, Jorgensen wonders how she re-accumulated so many things -- enough for a garage sale. She wonders where the time went. Her children are in their late teens and her middle child will graduate Sunday from Lincoln East High School.

For a few years after the tornado, she wondered if rebuilding in Hallam had been the right decision. 

Now she knows.

"We are home," she said. "And we have not let tragedy define us. Hallam is looking forward."

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​Reach the writer at 402-472-2655 or mklecker@journalstar.com.

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