Two Omaha-area transplants in Moore, Okla., spent the minutes before the deadly tornado huddled in their homes with their families.
Laura Carter, her husband, Caleb, and their five children were inside a closet. Then they heard a radio report to evacuate. They got into their car, leaving the house two minutes before the tornado hit.
Jeff Trebbien, his wife and young stepdaughter, along with his grown stepson and his wife, rode out the tornado inside their home. They also were in a closet, wrapped in a mattress. When they emerged, they found that the home was destroyed.
Family members in Omaha said there's nothing like the pain of waiting to find out whether your relative has survived a natural disaster several states away.
“I can't tell you, as a parent, how glad you are, when I see the phone call back and he says, 'Hey, Dad,' ” said Jim Trebbien, Jeff's father and dean of the Culinary, Hospitality and Horticulture Department at Metropolitan Community College. “You just imagine the worst. It's quite scary.”
Jim Trebbien spoke to his son twice Monday after the tornado but couldn't reach him Tuesday. Cellphone towers were overloaded in the Oklahoma City area because of the high volume of calls.
Jeff Trebbien moved to Oklahoma four years ago to chase storms, in a way — he was a roofer whose job took him there to repair hail damage. He stayed because the hailstorms came so frequently that he made good money.
In the meantime, he met and married an Oklahoma woman.
That's how he ended up in a closet Monday, with the adults clutching his stepdaughter.
“To me, there's only one answer. God was looking out for these people,” Jim Trebbien said.
Jeff Trebbien, who now works as a car salesman, wasn't sure what he was going to do.
Caleb Carter arrived home Monday afternoon with a weather radio. Then came the call to evacuate. The Carters piled into the car and raced toward Interstate 35.
“They ran red lights,” said Laura Carter's sister, Sarah Fischer, who lives in Omaha. “They did everything they could to get to that Interstate.”
They made it just a couple of minutes before the tornado touched down.
As the oldest of six, Fischer took the lead in checking on the Carters and relaying to the rest of the family that they were safe. She held a cellphone to one ear and a landline phone to the other as she checked and updated Facebook and watched the TV news.
It was tough watching the pictures of the devastation as she tracked her sister's journey to her in-laws' house, Fischer said.
“You crave the information, but then you almost get too much information,” she said.
The Carters are now staying at Caleb's parents' house in nearby Mustang, Okla., while they collect themselves. They left the house without shoes or Mom's purse, and Dad doesn't have any work clothes.
Caleb sneaked back into the disaster zone to find that their house was still standing, though he couldn't get in to assess the damage. One block away, another home had been leveled.
Laura Carter, who moved to Oklahoma to attend college, hopes to come to Omaha in the next few days to stay with her sister or parents. So early Tuesday, Fischer began to solicit donations for clothing in the kids' and parents' sizes.
By the end of the day, she was overwhelmed with the response. Boxes and boxes of clothes and toys rolled in, mostly from strangers.
“You think, 'I wish I could do something to help.' I would feel that way,” she said. “Often, you feel so helpless.”
One woman dropped off a few things, including gift cards.
She asked for a pen to write a check to Laura Carter. Her only condition was that Carter not waste her time writing a thank-you note.
When the woman left, Fischer looked at the check. She started crying.
The woman had given her sister $1,000.
“I have no idea who that is,” Fischer said of the donor, wiping away the tears. “I have goosebumps right now.”
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Deadly Nebraska tornadoes
March 23, 1913: Omaha and Ralston, F4, an estimated 103 people die and $8.7 million in damage
June 7, 1953: Arcadia, 11 deaths. No Fujita rating or damage estimate available
June 3, 1980: Grand Island, F4, five deaths, $2.5 million in damage
May 9, 1953: Hebron, F3, five deaths, $2.5 million in damage
May 8, 1965: Primrose, F4, four deaths, $25 million in damage
May 6, 1975: Omaha, F4, three deaths, $250 million in damage
June 8, 1949: Belvidere, three deaths, no Fujita rating or damage estimate
May 5, 1964: Bradshaw, F5, Bradshaw, two deaths, $2.5 million in damage
May 7, 1988: Sarpy-Douglas Counties, two tornadoes merge into one F2, two deaths, $2.5 million in damage
May 22, 2004: Hallam, F3, one death, $100 million in damage
June 23, 2003: Deshler, F2, one death, $5.5 million in damage
Compiled by World-Herald librarian Sheritha Lewis
Source: Ken Dewey, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, www.stormhorizon.org
Top ten deadliest U.S. tornadoes since 1900
695 deaths. March 18, 1925, in Missouri, Illinois and Indiana
216 deaths. April 5, 1936, in Tupelo, Miss.
203 deaths. April 6, 1936, in Gainesville, Ga.
181 deaths. April 9, 1947, in Woodward, Okla.
158 deaths. May 22, 2011, in Joplin, Mo.
143 deaths. April 24, 1908, in Amite, La., and Purvis, Miss.
116 deaths. June 8, 1953, in Flint, Mich.
114 deaths. May 11, 1953, in Waco, Texas
114 deaths. May 18, 1902, in Goliad, Texas
103 deaths. March 23, 1913, in Omaha
Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration