The morning of March third, 2003, was a pretty normal Monday for Tiffany, Nebraska. People woke up or slept in or got shoes on the kids or toasted a pop tart or brushed their teeth or did any of the other normal, morning things. It was brisk but sunny outside, just as it should have been, and the old farmers breakfasting in the diner (eggs and sausage and pancakes and toast and hashbrowns) tugged on the brims of their mesh, John Deere ballcaps and muttered optimistically to each other. The branch manager of the town’s bank hit on the receptionist as he always did and she brushed it off as she always did. Life was pretty normal.
As most people started getting home between four-thirty and five-thirty in the early evening, a fair number of conversations swirled around the upcoming invasion of Iraq. The President had made an ultimatum and there was no way that Saddam was going to accede to it, and that was that. America was going to war again, wasn’t it?
No one really noticed at first when the winds started to pick up. A little breeze in the evening was normal. And it was true that the weather man on the news that morning hadn’t mentioned any clouds in the evening, but it was also true that mostly he was forecasting for the city and the rural forecasts were an afterthought. He’d gotten it wrong before.
Night came on quickly and deeply, the sort of enveloping darkness you only get a new moon conspires with thick cloud cover, blanking out even the feeble pinprick lights of the stars. The wind wasn’t just an evening breeze any more: it was starting to whistle in the chain link fences. Moms and dads went into the yards with flashlights to rescue their frightened children and when they came back inside, they found that their windows had been turned into perfect mirrors.
The wind’s whistling climbed until it was howling, snapping branches off of trees and hurling them into the sides of houses. Adults and teenagers laughed nervously to show each other they weren’t afraid, then lapsed into silence. The radios had all gone to static, with the AM bands punctuated by the crackle of lightning bolts in the clouds. Cable TV, internet, and phone services all cut off within a few seconds of the power going, and in the new silence, the residents heard the first bass hints of the tornado.
It started on the far Western edge of town and swept slowly, inexorably Eastward. The violence it did to the earth it was churning up felt like an earthquake from halfway across the small town, shaking decorative plates off of mantels to shatter somewhere in the pitch darkness. The town was utterly destroyed in just over a half hour.
Buildings were sheared off below the foundation line: the tornado scoured the top couple feet of topsoil. Even pavement had been stripped off, the wind using the mass of the dirt and litter it carried to pry up sidewalks and great strips of the street. Families had been plucked, quaking from their storm cellars into the open air or crushed by collapsing walls. Vehicles full of pulped corpses landed in fields a mile and a quarter away. A town of fifteen hundred residents had been wiped off the map except for seven survivors.
Somehow, no one cared. No one came to sift through the rubble to save the wounded – they saved themselves or died where they were. No news crews gathered to film the devastation with their crow’s eyes. FEMA didn’t show up to take charge of the efforts and determine what went wrong or why there hadn’t been so much as a thunderstorm warning.
For the survivors, there was only the broken and splintered wreckage where their lives had been.
They did what they could to move on. One of them couldn’t and killed himself instead. Another – Spencer Robinson – dedicated his life to both keeping all the survivors in touch and to figuring out what happened that night. Now, in early October 2010, he thinks he knows, and he’s invited everyone to his apartment in Lincoln so he can tell them in person.