One year later, Hallam reflects

The oldest resident of this small, southeastern Nebraska town is happy in her new home – but there’s still one thing missing.

BY HEATHER MOYER | HALLAM, Neb. | May 20, 2005

"There are no trees left in town."

—Rev. Dan Davis

The oldest resident of this small, southeastern Nebraska town is happy in her new home – but there’s still one thing missing.

“She looks out her front window and sees an empty church lot,” said the Rev. Dan Davis, pastor of Hallam Congregational United Church of Christ (HCUCC). “She says her life will be complete again when the church is there.”

Sunday marked the one-year anniversary of the devastating tornado that ripped through Hallam, destroying that resident’s home, Davis’ church, and most of the town.

“I’d say about 95% of the town was destroyed,” said Davis. ”It was the largest tornado ever recorded in the U.S.”

By largest, Davis refers to the twister’s width, which the National Weather Services says was 2.5 miles wide at one point during its 62-mile journey across southeast Nebraska. The F4 leveled homes and businesses across the region.

Hallam United Methodist Church (HUMC) was destroyed that stormy Saturday evening as well, and the majority of both church’s membership either saw their homes destroyed or suffer significant damage.

A year later, the tornado’s power still remains clear in Hallam.

“In tangible terms, the landscape of the entire town has completely changed,” Davis said. “There are no trees left in town. Lawns are filled with glass and rocks, and pieces of steel. There are still some cleanup needs that we’re going to have to be dealing with over the long haul.”

Irene Severin, a member of HCUCC, agreed. “Hallam still looks pretty bleak. We’ve lost many of our landmarks. You always knew to turn at the Methodist church or so-and-so’s house to get somewhere, but they all blew away.”

But the positive is that new homes are popping up around town – as many as 70 have been rebuilt in the past year.

Both churches are seeing positive changes as well. On Mother’s Day, Hallam United Methodist Church broke ground for its new building. “The church is on the same site as the old one,” said the Rev. Lorri Kentner, pastor of the congregation. “We’re hoping to be in the building before our Christmas Eve service.”

Davis hopes the ground-breaking for the new Hallam Congregational United Church of Christ will be sometime late this summer.

In the meantime, both churches have found shelter with neighboring congregations. Davis said that only days after the tornado, the pastor of Cortland United Church called to say HCUCC was welcome to use the Cortland building. “He asked when our service was so that they could change the time of their own,” said Davis. And while the two congregations worship at different times, they share the Sunday School hour.

“This has really given our kids a broader context in which to place their own experience,” he added.

Hallam UMC also moved in with another congregation – Rev. Kentner’s other church, Martell United Methodist Church.

The generosity has come from beyond the next few towns for Hallam as well. Kentner said volunteers and financial assistance poured in from across the state and the country. “I think it’s amazing how our own state pulled together,” she explained. “We had hundreds and hundreds of volunteers that came – businesses were letting their people come here to help and still get paid. And people are still calling to see how they can help.”

Other assistance came from the Nebraska chapter of Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (NEVOAD), the Nebraska Disaster Recovery Organization, United Church of Christ National Disaster Ministries, the United Methodist Committee on Relief, Church of the Brethren, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, Church World Service and others.

Within the town of Hallam itself, Kentner believes families and neighbors are now stronger because of how much they helped each other. Davis agreed, noting that even families who had suffered greatly still gave all they could.

“I remember on the Sunday after December 26, I mentioned the tsunami in a sermon, and how I thought we could all understand what they were going through,” said Davis. “And by the end of that day, I had $1,000 to send for tsunami relief. In the midst of all their losses, the congregation was still able to be generous to others.”

Yet help is still needed. Both congregations are striving to reach their financial goals to help them rebuild their churches. Some families are still not back in their homes. Both Davis and Kentner said they are still offering pastoral counseling to people, some of whom are still having nightmares.

“It’s still a struggle,” noted Kentner. “The anniversary brings back memories. Gray clouds and tornado watches or warnings make people nervous.”

On Sunday, the entire community of Hallam came together for a day of remembrance and celebration. The morning started with both congregations meeting at their respective former church sites. Davis said while his church didn't break ground just yet for their new building, they did unveil a new church sign that says ‘The United Church of Christ will rise again!’

Both congregations then marched down the street to a common area for a community-wide worship service, where Davis preached -- from the book of Jeremiah, chapter 30. "Behold the storm!" he said.

The rest of the afternoon was full of community speakers, awards, food, and entertainment.

“It’s really just a chance for everybody to gather together,” Kentner explained. “That’s been one of the most difficult pieces because everybody is scattered. We need these moments to see each other and check in.”

For Davis, seeing the community rise from the rubble is amazing, and reminds him of his search through the debris of his church two days after the twister. He was looking for a cherished Bible of his as he climbed up on the pile of rubble.

“At the top of the heap, there was my Bible lying on the top of it all,” he said. “I’m still picking pieces of glass and sand from between the pages, but it survived.”

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