STANTON — Boe Searight is proud of ol’ Betsy, even though she looks as if she’s been through World War III.
But Betsy is ever faithful — and when Searight turns the key and pumps the accelerator, the 1980 Cutlass starts right off, albeit emitting some billowing dark smoke from the tailpipe. Even though a tad rusty and worn, she had been running fine previous to a tornado that wreaked havoc on the Searight farmstead north of Stanton last Monday.
Poor Betsy was tossed on her side by the tornado, windows broken out and left crumpled.
Searight, now 35, purchased the car when he was 11, thanks to earnings and tips from his route as a Daily News carrier while growing up in Norfolk. He also accumulated savings from the lawn service he opened at age 8.
Almost 10 years ago, Searight purchased 40 acres of Stanton County land. “I purchased it, slept there two nights and then went to Iraq,” said Searight, who has served 18 years with the Nebraska Army National Guard.
After returning from his last mission in December, the 1997 Norfolk High School graduate began work as a conductor with the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad in Osmond.
The afternoon of June 16, Searight was on a train at Sioux City where a train bridge was out. He was keeping tabs on the worsening weather conditions but said he is not allowed to use his cellphone while the train is operating.
About 15 minutes before the storm struck, he noticed hail on the weather map. During a lull from the train’s operation, Searight said he called his wife, Melanie, and told her to get the family’s horse in the barn.
She and their three children — Eva, 11; Justus, 9; and Valen, 7 — retreated to the basement of the family’s already-damaged, old, two-story, concrete-sided farmhouse.
Its roof had been totaled during a hailstorm less than two weeks before. Six of the family’s seven vehicles also were pounded by hailstones.
During the tornado, Searight said, “My wife and kids were praying in the basement.” He quipped that “I think she was praying for a new house.”
Searight’s family escaped unscathed, but the house was extensively damaged. When Searight reached home, he said the damage “was worse than I thought it would be . . . the beautiful trees are gone.”
Searight had the house windows replaced two months ago, with a new roof installed six years ago. He had been converting a corn crib into a shop, adding sheet metal to the sides. “I had nine out-buildings,” he said.
The Searight farmstead — which resembles a war zone — was shown on ABC, the Weather Channel and “Good Morning America.” Searight conducted his first media interview about the tornado with the Daily News on Sunday afternoon.
“I’ve never been happier in my life,” he said. “My family is safe. We’re OK. Everything else is gone.”
Searight said the message of the pastor’s sermon at the Heartland Baptist Church in Norfolk on June 15 was “pure joy, knowing that we’re going to heaven. I never have to worry about anything.”
“I’ve seen his hand in combat numerous times,” Searight said. “He’s always kept me and mine safe.”
On Sunday, Searight said he and his family members cleaned the debris from their Bibles and attended services at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Norfolk where a niece was baptized.
The Searights have insurance coverage.
He said his plans are to pay off the loan on the farm and “then rebuild as money comes in.” He can envision a new house set among trees — whatever trees are left or new trees that will be planted — north of the original home site.
Old Glory flies in the farm yard.
Searight said the morning after the tornado, the first thing he did was head to Norfolk to purchase a new flagpole, American flag and a generator. His other flagpole was bent over by the tornado, with the flag damaged.
On Sunday, a cadre of volunteers with Kearney Heartland Ministries was busy clearing downed trees to the west of the farmstead so they could establish a fence line and erect a new fence for Searight’s cattle.
The herd of 16 — including six cow-calf pairs — had sought refuge in the trees during the tornado. All but one escaped injury.
Of his service to tornado victims in the Stanton and Pilger area over the weekend, Andy Lundgren, a University of Nebraska at Kearney employee, said, “There’s a need. In my personal walk, this is something I can do with my hands.”
Dave Reynolds of Norfolk was among other volunteers assisting Sunday, doing whatever he was asked. “This is the heartland of the country,” he said. “This is what we’re supposed to do.” Two of his nephews were among the Restore volunteers.
The Restore volunteers included four members of the Ravenna FFA Chapter. Over the past year, FFA’er Megan Carlson has assisted at tornado sites at Moore, Okla.; Joplin, Mo.; and Wayne.
“God has called us to help others,” she said.
The Searight family is now staying on a farm between Norfolk and Stanton.
Searight said that “a lot of relatives, friends and Army buddies” have been assisting with the cleanup. “They come and go,” he said. “I stay. I’m wore out.”
“My boss said to take off as much time as I need,” Searight said.
He even spent two nights after the tornado sleeping on his mud-caked waterbed. Everything in the home, he said, is caked with mud, grass and glass. He is hopeful some of the family heirlooms can be restored.