Town Devastated by Tornado Declares: "We Will Not Rebuild."
Residents of Mayfair, Neb. are still looking to the future one week after an EF-3 tornado destroyed the erstwhile farming community. As of Tuesday, all 203 survivors had promised they would never—not ever—rebuild.
The record-breaking storm, which killed 47 people, inflicted an estimated $300 million in damages—or 500 times the annual operating budget of Mayfair County. But the extent of the destruction could not even persuade anyone in Mayfair to band together to reclaim everything they had lost. Neither would they accept federal aid, citing its goddamn uselessness.
The Sign at the Edge of Town Is Gone
At first, the decision not to rebuild was arrived at lightly, an almost knee-jerk reaction by a traumatized people sifting through literal and psychological rubble for answers. But with more time to process the shock and grief, residents have gained a better sense of hopelessness and remain committed to their refusal to try.
“You just hitch up your belt, put your socks on one foot at a time, and completely give up,” said 72-year-old soybean distributor Caleb Johnson, motioning helplessly toward a collapsed metal outbuilding that once contained his business. “Look at that, oh my god. Ridiculous.”
The Horror and the Soybean Distributor
Had Johnson been working late as he usually does, instead of cowering in the family storm cellar with his wife, he admits he would be dead of a tornado.
“My [somehow still alive] wife asked what made me come home so early when I would usually be at my store [which was destroyed],” Johnson said. “I honestly can say I honestly don't know.”
Invoking the memories of his great-great-grandparents Asa and Mimi Elden, who immigrated to fledgling Mayfair from Sweden in 1870, Johnson appeared to be addressing the ghosts of his ancestors: “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
A Mayor’s Farewell
With the last remaining streetlight shining on him in the purple dusk, Mayor Joe Wintenbaum tried to rally demoralized citizens at what used to be a Subway.
“We are a strong, realistic people. That is why we have to hold our heads high and leave town immediately,” Wintenbaum told the wind-stunned crowd, who looked like they’d been hit by a tornado, because they had been.
“See for yourself,” he continued, motioning to Mayfair’s remains. “Does that look like a lost cause, or does it look like something a little love and elbow grease could make new?”
Asked to clarify, Mayor Wintenbaum responded, “It’s a lost cause.”
Get Your Wigs and Hats…No More
Debra Vaughan, proprietor of Vaughan’s Hats & Wigs, remained in bright spirits Saturday morning despite having her entire life literally sucked away from above.
Outside the mess that was her home, Vaughan waxed hopeless: “Everything just seems so impossible right now, because it is.”
Debra’s husband, Alfred, agreed. “It’s a bad deal, that’s all I know. I found our son’s Macbook under a pile of ceiling tile. A shaft of wheat was sticking right through it. We took a picture to show him when he gets out of the hospital. I think it’ll make him laugh, if he can still laugh.”
Scientists say such baffling phenomena as grass piercing metal, cherished family heirlooms deposited a hundred miles away or more, and even an entire town abandoning itself, are common with extremely powerful tornadoes, like the one that destroyed Mayfair.
Situated in Tornado Alley, an area of the Midwest stretching from Minnesota to Texas that experiences frequent twisters from April to September, Mayfair’s days were numbered the moment Edward Jay Mayfair III staked his claim here in 1852—163 years before that fact wouldn’t really matter anymore.
Over the years, dozens of tornadoes had come close but had always ended up skirting the edge of Mayfair. At worst, a small tornado might’ve collapsed an outbuilding or two. Such close calls may have nurtured a townwide sense of false security that obviously isn’t there anymore due to the fact that the town isn’t.
Hard to Say Goodbye
As the last survivors halfheartedly picked through the remains of their houses, many wondered what they had done to deserve the upending of their lives, the destruction of their cars and homes, the immolation of beloved greasy-spoon diners and knick-knack shops, the uprooting of beloved trees and gardens, the violent deaths of loved ones—and whether there was anything they could have done to stop it.
No, there wasn’t, Dr. Michael Eichstein, a scientist, said.
Tornadoes are natural phenomena having little to do with human behavior, Eichstein explained. Other than the long-term climatic effects of greenhouse gas emissions, humans have not had an appreciable influence on the course of these or any other powerful storms.
Despite Eichstein’s reassurance, some residents still blamed last week’s devastation on everything from gay marriage to tornadoes. The deity known as God was fingered as a possible culprit.
“The Lord is clearly not on our side,” former Elliott’s Lanes bowling alley owner Devin Elliott told Associated Press reporters Tuesday. “If He even exists.”
While some community members’ faith had been violently shaken like the crumbling walls of their dead homes, most Mayfair residents agreed that, without their steadfast faith and reliance on God, none would be so disillusioned and depressed by Thursday’s tornado.
Instead, residents said, they would attribute the event to the interplay between moist air from the Gulf of Mexico and a stalled Canadian cold front. Such interplay, known as weather, would receive most of the blame for last week’s storm.
The town will remain eerily on Google Earth for the next three years.