In the 14 years he and his family had lived on their rural homestead outside Plattsmouth, they'd never left to escape a storm — even though their living quarters lack a basement.
But last Wednesday afternoon felt different.
"I'll never be able to explain it," he said. "It was still a nice day. We'd been outside doing chores, but I felt funny, like something weird was going on. ... I said, 'We just have to get out of here.'"
About a half hour after the family — McMains, his wife, his daughter, his niece and their two dogs — took shelter in a neighbor's basement, a tornado bearing 125 mph winds barreled through their property.
It was one of dozens of tornadoes on a record-setting Dec. 15. The tornado demolished most of the large farm building where the McMains lived, knocked down trees and fences, fatally injured a horse and pet sheep and left several other horses hurt.
Rated at an EF2 intensity, which is strong, it was one of at least 90 tornadoes to touch down in Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin that day.
Record-setting tornadoes, along with record-setting straight-line winds, left a trail of damage across the central U.S. and five people dead: three in Kansas, one in eastern Iowa and a fifth in Minnesota.
In Nebraska, the state's largest farm insurer said Dec. 15 will go down as the company's biggest December storm loss in 130 years of keeping records.
With at least 42 tornadoes occurring in Iowa, the outbreak ranks as the most on any day of any year in Iowa, including peak tornado season, said Justin Glisan, state climatologist. Records date to 1950.
"It's astounding to have an outbreak like that any time of year, but for it to occur in December is unheard of," Glisan said.
In Nebraska, at least 27 tornadoes occurred, all within a three-hour time span. To understand how unusual it is to have that many December tornadoes in Nebraska, consider that only five tornadoes — in total — are known to have occurred in the state in all Decembers combined since 1950, said Taylor Nicolaisen, meteorologist with the weather service. (In Iowa, a total of six had occurred in all Decembers since 1950.)
In eastern Nebraska and southwest Iowa, the outbreak likely set a daily record for the most tornadoes on any date, said Brian Smith, warning coordination meteorologist for the Valley office of the weather service.
And the tornado outbreak vaulted the month to second for any month in that area, he said — second only to June 2008, when 29 occurred in the midst of peak tornado season.
The line of twisters continued to astonish as it moved northeast. Wisconsin tied its record for most ever December tornadoes. Minnesota recorded its first ever December tornado and then experienced at least 17 more.
Meteorologists are still analyzing damage tracks to determine how many tornadoes actually occurred.
Likewise, a record number of hurricane-strength straight-line wind gusts was reported as the storm system traveled more than 650 miles across the country, generating the first ever December derecho. (Hurricane strength is anything of 75 mph or greater, and a derecho is a powerful, long-lived wind storm.)
On Dec. 15, there were 63 such hurricane-strength gusts recorded at sites across the central U.S., including a 93 mph gust near Lincoln.
The damage could have been much worse. For the most part, the tornadoes traveled through rural areas, including multiple strong tornadoes that each cut damage paths of 15 to 30 miles.
For Farmers Mutual of Nebraska, it will be the company's largest December storm loss in its 130-year history, said Mark T. Walz, chairman, president and CEO. Farmers Mutual is the largest insurer of farm property in Nebraska.
In total, the company believes its losses may hit $30 million on almost 4,000 reported claims, Walz said.
Much of the damage was to center pivot irrigation systems that were overturned and twisted in the high winds, though wind damage to other farm property is expected to be significant. Several homes, especially in the Hastings area, sustained severe hail damage.
State Farm Insurance received 1,420 claims from homeowners in Iowa and 540 in Nebraska, according to spokesman Benjamin Palmer.
"It's hard to say what ended up causing more of the damage, the tornadoes or the straight-line winds," said Jeremy Wesely, meteorologist with the Hastings office of the weather service. "It was a December day to remember."
Across the tornado-stricken states, families, friends, neighbors and strangers have been gathering to clean up.
At McMains' Log Barn Stables, more than a dozen students from Papillion La Vista South High's choir classes pitched in Monday to clear away debris.
Grayson Truax, a junior and one of the volunteers, described the damage as seemingly "insurmountable."
"To think that something you had spent many years to create could be taken down and completely destroyed, it was wild to witness," he said.
In addition to the normal chainsaws to cut up trees, the teens rolled a powerful magnet across the fields to pull up any nails or metal that might injure horses, Truax said. "Click, click, click" could be heard as nails snapped up to the magnet.
Despite the widespread storms, only a handful of injuries were reported in Nebraska, all believed to be minor. Emergency officials attributed the lack of serious injuries to people heeding warnings.
"I'm not quite sure we dodged a bullet," said Chad Korte, chief deputy director for Cass County (Nebraska) Emergency Management, a county where two strong tornadoes touched down. "We gave residents as much heads up as we could, and everybody got to shelter, which definitely helped. No one was seriously injured or killed. There would have been some significant injuries if people had stayed outside and not hunkered down."
Cody Thomas, a spokesman for the Nebraska State Patrol, said traffic was down for a weekday, and it appeared as if travelers heeded the warnings.
Troopers responded to about 40 motorist assists and 10 crashes last Wednesday. Several high-profile vehicles, such as semitrailers, tipped over, he said. (In Iowa, authorities believe the semi driver who was killed was not wearing a seatbelt — the driver had been ejected from the cab.)
The storms sped along at an average speed of 60 to 65 mph, and some storms were estimated to be moving in excess of 80 mph, according to the weather service.
"The speed of the system was a blessing and a curse," said Brian Barjenbruch, science and operations officer at the National Weather Service office in Valley.
Yes, the speed of the storm caught some people unaware.
But while winds and tornadoes were widespread, the overall speed of the system lessened damage, he said. Any tornadoes would have battered a property for only two to five seconds, he said. In contrast, some tornadoes are stationary, he said.
And while the speed of the storms fueled the strength of the straight-line winds, they were in and out before they could cause even more significant damage, he said. Slower-traveling storms would have had lesser winds, but they would have lasted longer and caused more damage, he said.
"It's a Catch-22," he said.
That helps explain why last week's storm caused less damage than the historic windstorm on July 10 that toppled trees, blocked roads and left a record number of homes and businesses in southeast Nebraska without power.
The strongest of the July winds lasted 15 to 20 minutes, according to the weather service. In contrast, the strongest gusts with the Dec. 15 storm lasted less than a minute, Barjenbruch said.
Another likely reason that the damage was less severe this month is that trees had fewer leaves, so they were less likely to be buffeted by the wind.
In Neola, Iowa, a tornado caused significant damage to the town's two major employers, a grain bin and a feedlot service company, which has required them to temporarily relocate operations, said Mayor Karla Pogge.
Like others, she was stunned by how quickly the weather changed.
"It got real dark, started pouring rain and there was a loud noise. Then, all of a sudden, it brightened up outside," she said of her experience two blocks from where the tornado hit.
"We are very lucky that it hit on the edge of town," she said, "because it was devastating."