Published January 14, 2015
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 (search) 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 (search) 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.
Severe thunderstorms slammed southern Michigan for a third day Sunday, triggering at least two late-afternoon tornadoes near the towns of Montrose and Williamston. There were no immediate reports of injuries or property damage.
Flood waters (search) also swamped Lower Michigan, where about 85,000 customers remained without electricity 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.
The smell of natural gas lingered, despite breezy conditions. Several railroad grain cars were knocked off their tracks in the middle of town, the remains of a 50-foot silo draped over them.
Krista Parker, a volunteer firefighter, trudged through the streets, sweat streaming down her face. Her home was among those damaged.
"You can't even see the front door" because of the debris, she said.
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 multiple reports of the same tornado in different locations.
Some areas reported 4 to 6 inches of rain and widespread flash flooding. Authorities closed parts of U.S. Highway 77 and state Highway 41, said Nebraska State Patrol spokeswoman Deb Collins.
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.
Scores of people showed up at Hallam's city limits volunteering to help, but they were not allowed into the town because it's too dangerous, Collins said.
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 sent a letter asking President Bush to declare 16 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 was washed off a bridge overnight.