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   from the issue of June 10, 2004

  Hundreds of workers volunteer in areas devastated by tornado

UNL lends a hand in Hallam


Even five days after the event, when busloads of volunteers from UNL drove into the southern Lancaster County town of Hallam, there was no mistaking the magnitude of the damage left by the tornados that hit on May 22. Huge silos were twisted, their contents spilled on the ground. Houses were left as empty shells, caved in or blown away with only a few standing walls left. A huge amount of litter from houses and what were once large, mature trees covered lawns, with personal items, appliances and the other material pieces of people’s lives mixed in.

Shane Zavala of Building Systems Maintenance picks up flowers at the Hallam United Methodist Church, one of many buildings in...
 Shane Zavala of Building Systems Maintenance picks up flowers at the Hallam United Methodist Church, one of many buildings in that town destroyed by the May 22 tornado. At right is Ed Schmidt, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Zavala and Schmidt were two of hundreds of UNL employees who helped at the tornado sites May 26-28. Photo by Brett Hampton.

UNL employees were able to volunteer in tornado-ravaged Hallam and nearby towns and farms for part or all of May 26-28 on work time. More than 400 employees took part, according to UNL estimates.

Cleanup crews were formed into teams in a staging area at the Countryside Alliance Church in Princeton, just a few miles northeast of Hallam. When they arrived in Hallam they were responsible for working in a section of the town. Many groups picked up and sorted tree limbs, lumber, metal and plastic debris, personal effects and anything else the storm deposited, sorting it by type so it all could be carried out. Dump trucks made round after round of pick-ups.

Volunteers found personal effects such as documents and photos, including one of a woman and her infant child. One man, in the midst of the rubble of his house, combed through grass looking for a heart-shaped, silver pendant.

Recovery activities weren’t restricted to the town. Some two miles east of Hallam, a farmhouse was demolished and wood scattered over a field. Some UNL workers walked the fields picking up debris so it could be safely farmed.

Lynn DeShon, a staff secretary in the Department of Environmental Health and Safety, worked in the town three days, May 25-27. Just three days after the tornados hit, there were still many personal effects to be collected. DeShon said in her work, she found jewelry, rings, purses and photographs.

Her group also found lots of photos, legal documents, even plans for a building, and took pains to separate materials at each house they visited.

“I thought, ‘How caring that the people would organize these things,’ ” DeShon said.

One day, DeShon worked with three other volunteers in the town’s cemetery, clearing downed trees and raking the grass to clear the small pieces of debris. A 2,000-pound monument had been turned over, but nearby, Matchbox toys on the headstone of a 4-year-old boy remained in place.

The work was very demanding but rewarding, DeShon said.

“Every night I would come back (home) and think I’m not going back (the next day), I’m too tired. The second night I had nightmares of being caught in a tornado. But the knowledge that I had a place to come home to and these people don’t ... I count my blessings. So I went back.”

Kelly Grey Carlisle, project assistant and managing editor at Prairie Schooner, joined the cleanup effort.

“I’m from California and didn’t know about tornados. Then to see the destruction and to hear the stories, I understood Nebraskans better,” she said.

Carlisle began working in the Princeton coordination center, then went to Hallam to help sort materials.

She heard many stories of the storm’s effects, including one family who hid in their basement and emerged to find a large wooden beam had been driven through the house like a stake.

“What moved me the most was when we were cleaning a yard and found lots of torn-up snapshots blown from who knows where. We found part of a ‘Congratulations On Your Wedding’ card. The writing had been washed off,” she said.

But Carlisle also witnessed the resilience of the Hallam people. She said she heard one woman in a crowd of her neighbors say “Yeah, I’m going to rebuild! There are still four pansies standing in my garden and I’m going to rebuild!” In fact, Carlisle said, the people she talked to were annoyed that anyone would question if they would rebuild.

Lisa Tobiason grew up in small towns where it’s assumed that people will help each other in time of need. A safety specialist in the UNL Department of Environmental Health and Safety, Tobiason worked with crews from Landscape Services to remove limbs. She also sorted through debris and helped clean up two houses.

“We picked up everyday things that people take for granted,” she said. They found pictures, Christmas decorations, books, records, personal tax forms, insurance papers and prescriptions.

Leonard Akert, an instrument maker in the Department of Chemical Engineering, put in five days of work. He helped take down tree limbs, sorted through rubble and worked in the food distribution center. He used his construction experience to work with structural concerns in houses.

In addition to representatives from across UNL departments, Landscape Services and Utility Services in the Department of Facilities Management and Planning were especially well-equipped for doing the kinds of work that needed to be done. The department sent several workers with a truck-full of chainsaws and tools.

“It’s a humbling experience to see the devastation,” said Landscape Services’ Kirby Baird. Shortly after the storm, Baird and his team scrambled to clear streets, driveways and sidewalks so they were accessible for trucks and cleanup crews.

Korey Klaus, landscape assistant in Landscape Services, grew up in Princeton.

“It hits real close to home when you see this entire town devastated. I’ve never seen anything like it in person,” he said. “It’s different when you are right there in the middle of it, with people’s personal belongings everywhere. You see the emotion in their faces.”

See additional special coverage in the TOP NEWS section



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