My first assignment as an intern at the Crete News was to report on the one-year anniversary of the 2004 Hallam, Neb. tornado.
What an initiation.
As I got off West Sprague Road and headed south, I scanned the countryside looking for a water tower, grain bin – anything to help me find the tiny town. I drove aimlessly through Lancaster County, eventually happening upon a community that would change my life forever and shape me as a journalist.
Trees and buildings make small towns look smaller, cozier. At one time Hallam must have been a beautiful town with large, lush trees, judging by the size of the jagged broken-off stumps: oversized toothpicks snapped into pieces.
Hallam seemed to sprawl across for miles. The big stuff had been gathered – boards, large tree limbs, destroyed vehicles – but there were remnants left, telling the story of the second-largest tornado in history and the town it leveled.
I found a handful of buildings standing: if memory serves me, two bars, a doublewide trailer serving as a makeshift post office and village office, and the co-op. New houses were starting to sprout from the devastation. I tried to imagine Hallam before, but as I looked across the landscape, all I could think about is how it might feel to have your community destroyed in a matter of seconds.
One Hallam resident died May 22, 2004; dozens were injured.
Not long after that article, a young construction worker died of carbon monoxide poisoning while working on a new build in Hallam. I was tasked with what was supposed to be a short, fairly straightforward article.
I called the village office to find out who the homeowner was. I chased down his number through the grapevine. As I sat at my desk holding the cumbersome phone, fidgeting with the twisted cord, I didn’t expect who was going to be on the other line: a man who was trying to rebuild his home, but had given up on himself.
I have never – and probably won’t ever – talk to someone with such weight on his soul and gashes in his heart. A person who believed death and destruction followed him like a shadow.
He was related, he mumbled, to the woman who was killed during the tornado, and very reluctant to talk. Eventually we formed a rapport, and he opened up a bit.
“Jessica, I just don’t know what to do. Everything is destroyed. It doesn’t matter what I do.”
At that point I probably should have given him the number to the suicide hotline, but for some reason decided I was qualified to help him myself.
“Things will get better,” I told him, choking back tears of my own. There was a pause, as if he, too, was gathering himself.
I never talked with him again, but his response stuck.
“Things can’t get much worse.”