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A dozen tornadoes leave southern Neb. in crisis

By Associated Press
Published May 24, 2004

HALLAM, Neb. - Their ears popped because of the abrupt change in air pressure. Then they heard the cracking of trees being torn out of the earth.

"The wife told me, "Let's get under the stairs,' " Richard Raley said.

Raley and his wife, Karleen, huddled beneath the basement steps Saturday as a tornado ripped away their house and much of the rest of the small village of Hallam.

In all, more than a dozen tornadoes swept across southern Nebraska, killing at least one person and prompting Gov. Mike Johanns to declare a state of emergency.

The tornadoes were part of three days of severe weather that knocked out power to hundreds of thousands of people from Nebraska to Michigan to West Virginia. Most had power restored Sunday.

In Nebraska, Johanns confirmed the death of a 73-year-old Hallam woman, identified as Elaine A. Focken. The woman died after being struck by flying debris while trying to reach her basement, according to Johanns' spokeswoman, Terri Teuber.

The governor was taken by military helicopter Sunday to tour the town of 276 people, where every home was damaged or destroyed, vehicles were flipped and splintered trees and downed power lines lay in the streets.

"I've been in public office a lot of years, but I've never seen anything like this," Johanns said.

Residents of Hallam were evacuated 25 miles north to Lincoln overnight. Downed power lines and leaking propane tanks littered the town, prompting the Nebraska National Guard to surround the community Sunday to keep people from entering.

Pat O'Brien, a commander with the Volunteer Hallam Rescue team, said Sunday it was unclear whether more than one tornado hit Hallam.

"If it was one tornado, it was a pretty big one," O'Brien said.

Brian Smith, a National Weather Service forecaster, said there were 19 confirmed tornado sightings, although that could have included reports of the same tornado in different locations.

Heavy damage from high wind and hail was reported in several southern Nebraska counties, including the towns of Firth, Wilbur, Clatonia and Beatrice, where several homes were destroyed.

Johanns' state of emergency declaration makes available National Guard troops, the governor's emergency fund and potential federal resources.

In Iowa, meanwhile, Gov. Tom Vilsack planned to send a letter asking President Bush to declare 12 counties federal disaster areas.

Seventeen tornadoes hit the state Saturday - after a Friday tornado destroyed most of the tiny town of Bradgate - and flooding and other damage from the storms were widespread. One death was confirmed Sunday in Buchanan County, where a vehicle washed off a bridge.

[Last modified May 24, 2004, 01:00:32]

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