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Ten seconds to destroy, a year to rebuildTell North Platte what you think
Photo by George Lauby
Joan Smith in front of her rebuilt home, March 12.
Photo by George Lauby
A year earlier
Photo by George Lauby
Another view of Smith's house
Photo by George Lauby
A year earlier
Photo by George Lauby
Next door, the Freeman's
Photo by George Lauby
One year earlier
Photo by George Lauby
Joan Smith points to a tote basket on March 12, still dirty from the storm the year before.
Photo by George Lauby
A piece of cornstalk in her materials, a year later.

Joan Smith stood in her backyard, staring at shards of plastic and pottery scattered around on the ground.

It was a year after a twister tore most of her house and things apart. She will never put all the pieces back together.

“I used to pick up those pieces,” she said, pointing to some shards of pottery. “I thought maybe I’d put them together someday. But it got to be overwhelming.”

“My life changed,” she said. “I don’t worry about things that might happen in 10 years anymore.”

The twister roared down out of the south hills on March 18, 2012 straight at her house on Front Road west of North Platte.

It came across a corn field in the early darkness.

She and her daughter Erin had been watching the weather on television. The voice of the announcer seemed to take on a different tone. The lights flickered. At the last minute, she and Erin scrambled into a bedroom closet. They didn’t get the door closed tight when the tornado hit.

Next door, Leon Freeman looked out the back patio door and saw cornstalks flying over the house. He and his wife Carla hurried to a hallway in the center of the house and lay down.

Moments later, the twister tail roared right between the two homes, demolishing half of each house.

It vaporized the west half of the Freeman’s home, immediately west of where Carla and Leon lay in the hall.

The front door, walls, windows, ceiling and roof of Freeman’s house were gone. Only a chimney remained.

At Smith’s, the twister ripped the garage and living room apart. It tore the roof off the east half of the home, just missing the closet where Joan and Erin were huddled.

Smith’s pickup in the driveway ended up in the debris of what had been the living room.

The power lines in both yards went down. An electrical transformer dropped to the ground right between the houses.

Behind the Smith house, Joan’s 89-year-old mother Rebecca Prill took a stormy ride in the travel trailer in which she lived. It was blown into a shallow ravine. She survived, but suffered a fractured collar bone, cuts and abrasions.

The storm was over within 10 seconds, they said.

It was eerily silent.

The neighbors came out, looking for and finding one another.

Rescue crews arrived.

Smith’s purse was gone. She went with her mother to the hospital and when she got there, she realized she didn’t have her driver’s license or any money.

The next morning, help arrived in earnest.

Smith looked around, talked to friends, gathered up personal belongings and looked at the bright side.

“It’s a new beginning,” she told the Bulletin with a grin. “It’s the way it is. God was there and protected us. We’re getting help from a lot of neighbors and a lot of churches.”

When Carla Freeman was asked that day if she felt lucky, she said no. She said she felt blessed that she and Leon only had bumps and bruises.

They were all touched by hundreds of offers of help. People they didn’t know pitched in.

“We’ve had so much (helpful) response already today; it’s unbelievable,” Carla said.

Smith said the same thing.

“It’s hard to remember all the people who helped,” she said. “It was remarkable. And not one person got hurt during the clean up."

“People were getting a little irritated by the lookers who were driving by, taking pictures,” Smith said. “They were kind of gumming up things. My daughter challenged one of them to put down their camera and help out, and they did. They parked their car and started helping us.”

Smith’s backyard was a wreckage of trees, but by the end of the first day, the trees were cleaned up. At the same time, family and friends helped pack up what things were left in the house, filling tote basket after tote basket.

People arrived with loaders and trucks, and by the end of the second day, what was left of her house was removed, right down to the foundation, she said.

The tough part came 3-4 weeks later.

“I was in shock at first,” she said. “I was on autopilot. But later I felt lost. You need your stuff. There are so many memories there. After the dust settled, I felt lost and displaced.”

Smith rented a house a couple doors down that belonged to the Colvins. It sustained relatively minor damages, so she was near her house when it was rebuilt.

The only hang up to rebuilding came from federal authorities. The houses were technically in a flood plain. The Federal Emergency Management Agency had to grant Smith and the Freemans permission to rebuild their homes.

Construction of Smith’s house moved quickly then, but she had a thing or two changed. She had double walls built around the closet that saved her, so it is now a really safe place. She moved back in August while the finishing touches were being put on the interior.

The Freemans decided on an entirely new floor plan, so their rebuilding is going slower. They have another two months of work to do, Carla said. Meanwhile, they are renting a house in North Platte.

Carla said it’s still tough.

“It’s a process, a grieving process,” she said. “It does take time; everyone has a different timetable of how to process things. It was totally overwhelming at times, losing the house and the vehicles. But it kind of pulls your family together. And we live in a great community. The best thing to come of it was the incredible people we met along the way. They helped us from that evening and on through the next days. It really makes you appreciate your friends and family and people we didn’t even know. We’ve just been so blessed.”

Smith’s pickup had extensive body damage, but she had the front end fixed. It drives just fine although it still has dents and wrinkles from the twister.

She is still sorting through dozens of totes that were packed for her, and still finding cornstalks inside them. It’s a difficult emotional process.

“They packed them for me,” she said. “A lot of stuff should have been thrown away, but I’m glad they packed it all. I’m the one who should decide, and I’m glad to have the choice.”

On March 12, she sorted through six totes in one day. That was her best day since the storm a year ago.

When she walked across the backyard March 12, she pointed out the only tree that survived – the family picnic tree – which is budding.

New trees were also planted last year and more will be planted this spring.

She is better prepared if another twister should ever strike. An emergency bag is tucked away. It contains a debit card, warm jacket and gloves, and extra shoes.

“You need shoes,” she said. “They don’t really tell you that. Especially if you have children. There was glass everywhere.”

She also feels closer to family.

“It’s important if I’ve seen my kids and nieces and nephews, if I’ve talked to family,” she said. “That is what is important every day. And I am very thankful for what I have. My motto now is ‘time is only as good as what you make it.”

This report was first published March 13 in the Bulletin print edition.

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The North Platte Bulletin - Published 3/22/2013
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