Mary Wallen, the deputy city clerk in Nebraska City, takes severe weather seriously.
Despite a snow-preserving cold through much of the winter, a warm spring ushered in “shorts weather” by April 26, 1991. She woke to her clock radio and news that a tornado watch enveloped the entire state.
She thought such a broadcast was odd and noted how the weather was warm, windy and heavy. “The wind was blowing, it was like there was no air to breathe,” she said.
For the most part, however, it was a typical summer day. She had reason to suspect anything was wrong until a storm warning interrupted Jeopardy, her regular television program, around 5:15 p.m.
Strangely, she said, it was probably the last time she ever watched the quiz show.
She answered a phone call from her mother-in-law and told her husband, Wayne, that they were in the path of tornado east of Palmyra.
He looked out the window and declared that she was right.
Wallen did not feel a great sense of urgency, but thought it best to gather the children into the basement. She had two kids under age 5 and one on a bottle.
“I thought we would go down for 10 minutes or so until the kids started complaining that they were hungry, but it did not work out that way,” she said.
The light bulb hanging in the basement went black.
“I remember the profound darkness,” she said.
Moments later, she was struck by a brick and heard a crash from the tumbling chimney on the old farmhouse. She leaned over her newborn, while Wayne covered the other two children.
Both parents received lacerations from the falling chimney, but the rest of the house was pulled away from above their heads.
“I remember looking up and seeing the top of the basement wall and there was no house,” Wallen said.
“Everybody says tornadoes sound like a train, but this went right on top of us and I describe the sound like a jet plane,” she said.
She stared up at the open sky, with her baby on her lap. Wayne said he could see the funnel as it moved away.
The tornado scattered debris across a pasture. It collapsed a pole shed onto their car and tossed a slab of cement. They never found the refrigerator.
“Wayne says we found it, but it was just one piece at a time,” she said.
“Until it’s your stuff, I don’t think you can really understand. There were no dressers, but I found a pile of glass that I assumed used to be a mirror,” she said.
Wallen credits the concern and generosity of the community for helping the family cope with the coming days. They were able to rent a furnished house and started their recovery.
Page 2 of 2 - “It probably took seven years for that tornado not be a part of our daily life,” she said. “It was just a matter of not having stuff and everyone asking us questions. We couldn’t afford to replace everything at once, so we bought furnishings one room at a time,” she said.
Wallen said she does get overly worried about storm watches, but said people should be prepared.
“Tornadoes do not come out of the clear blue sky,” she said.
She recommends making a list of things you want to take to the basement with you and bringing things down whenever there is tornado watch.
“You have to keep it simple -- your purse, your scrapbook, a change of clothes,” she said.
The routine of carrying belongings to the basement became so familiar in her household, she learned to check with her kids when things came up missing after a storm.
“I tell people this storm took the whole farmstead. The old grain bin stood up, so we had to take it down, but no one ever lived there again.
Growing up in Minnesota, everything I knew about tornadoes came from watching the Wizard of Oz. I thought it would slide the house around on its foundation or something,” she said.
“You see everything demolished. You learn to deal with it,” she said.