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Tornadoes leave destruction in Neb.

Woman, 73, killed by debris; state of emergency declared

HALLAM, Neb. -- Their ears popped because of the abrupt change in air pressure. Then they heard the cracking of trees being torn out of the earth.

''The wife told me, 'Let's get under the stairs,' " Richard Raley said.

Raley and his wife, Karleen, huddled beneath the basement steps Saturday as a tornado ripped away their house and much of the rest of the small village of Hallam.

In all, more than a dozen tornadoes swept across southern Nebraska, killing at least one person and prompting Governor Mike Johanns to declare a state of emergency.

The tornadoes were part of three days of severe weather that knocked out power to hundreds of thousands of people from Nebraska to Michigan to West Virginia.

Severe thunderstorms slammed southern Michigan for a third day yesterday, triggering at least two late-afternoon tornadoes near the towns of Montrose and Williamston. Flood waters also swamped Lower Michigan, where about 95,000 customers remained without electricity yesterday.

In Nebraska, Johanns confirmed the death of a 73-year-old Hallam woman, identified as Elaine A. Focken. The woman died after being struck by flying debris while trying to reach her basement, according to Johanns's spokeswoman, Terri Teuber.

The governor was taken by military helicopter yesterday to tour the town of 276 people, where every home was damaged or destroyed, vehicles were flipped, and splintered trees and downed power lines lay in the streets.

''I've been in public office a lot of years, but I've never seen anything like this," Johanns said.

Residents were evacuated 25 miles north to Lincoln overnight. With propane tanks littering the town, the Nebraska National Guard surrounded the community yesterday morning to keep people from entering.

Pat O'Brien, a commander with the Volunteer Hallam Rescue team, said yesterday that it was unclear whether more than one tornado hit Hallam.

''If it was one tornado, it was a pretty big one," O'Brien said.

Brian Smith, a National Weather Service forecaster, said there were 19 confirmed tornado sightings, although that could have included multiple reports of the same tornado in different locations.

Some areas reported 4 to 6 inches of rain and flash flooding. Parts of US Highway 77 and state Highway 41 were closed.

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