You hear the questions many times a day. Where were you when it happened? What were you doing when the siren went off? Is everything OK at your place?
I was mowing the lawn, enjoying some wonderful early October weather, in shorts no less. Warm and sunny. Just beautiful.
Then it wasn’t.
The storm gathered quickly and something changed, even though I couldn’t tell you exactly what it was that made me hurry a little to put the mower away and close up the garage. I stopped to pick a few tomatoes, but even that felt strange, risky even.
And just as I was discovering the tornado watch in effect, it changed to a warning. Reports of a tornado on the ground just 11 miles to the south. It’s moving north. Take shelter. It made no sense, and so I stood at the window watching the clouds and thinking about dinner.
Then the siren.
It was the first time I’ve ever heard that unbroken blast and I remember thinking, that can’t be right. But again, something changed and I knew it was time to get to the basement.
They don’t tell you that the feeling of relative safety will not — cannot — relieve the sense of helplessness and panic down there. They don’t tell you that despite all your better judgment, all you want to do is go back up the stairs and make sure everything is going to be OK.
They don’t tell you that no matter how well-researched your disaster kit is, all you can think about is what you left up on the kitchen counter, or on your desk on the second floor, or did the neighbors get in, and what about their dog?
They don’t tell you about the silence. The siren stops, and where you think there will be fierce wind and thunder, there is absolutely nothing. Not a breath of anything. Nothing to do but wait.
Meanwhile, outside, the sky was falling and a mile-wide wedge of rain-wrapped EF4 destruction was barreling through the southeast part of town, destroying homes and businesses and injuring the unsheltered.
The only way the basement dwellers knew it was over — or that anything had even happened — is when we heard the sounds of the first responders, the police and fire sirens, all speeding in the same direction, all heading to a scene we wouldn’t fully comprehend for many hours.
The chief information officer of our college lay critically injured in a ditch where he’d taken shelter because the tornado was running him down in his truck.
He did exactly what he was supposed to do, but a metal dumpster, propelled by possibly 200 mph winds, flew into him. Our first responders rushed him to safety, and doctors say he will make it. The road will be long, but he will make it.
Farther to the southwest, my mailman was with his wife and three girls trying to find a way out of their basement because their exit was blocked with a couch that had flown into the stairway. When they finally came up and out of a window, they saw there was nothing left. Their foundation and the hallmark pile of matchsticks. But they had each other and, within no time, volunteers would swarm to their property to begin sifting.
And these are only a couple of the stories that unfolded in the aftermath Friday evening. Everywhere, people emerged from their homes and took stock.
Happily, so many of us are just fine, dealing with a tree limb or two and some shaken nerves. And miraculously, no one died and injuries were minor, other than our friend from the college.
There is much to be grateful for as our little town reflects on its recent visitor. But for some reason, there seems little to write about. For nearly four years I’ve been writing here about the endless kindness, compassion and community spirit we have, how the people make all the difference, and how you are never really alone, even while cowering in your basement dreading anything that sounds like that freight train they always talk about.
So it’s no surprise to me and certainly not news that they’ve been turning volunteers away because everyone and their dog is down at the armory asking how they can help. It’s no surprise that we have about a thousand casseroles circulating around town and that local restaurants have been feeding the emergency crews nonstop since about five minutes after the twister jumped the highway and headed north.
And it’s no surprise that families and businesses will not endure the coming months of rebuilding alone and things will likely go much faster than they ever imagined because their neighbors and friends will make it so.
No, the only surprising thing is that it happened at all, because even in tornado country, in little towns all across the Midwest, we think it won’t happen here. Not in our little slice of heaven. Now we know it’s probably better to think differently, that it can happen here. But when it does, we can count on all those things that make every other day so special — casseroles and all the rest.
Godspeed, Wayne, Neb.
Pamela Everett is a freelance writer and an assistant professor at Wayne State College, where she teaches criminal law and legal/justice classes. She moved to Wayne from California, where she practiced law for 14 years.