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Fifteen years
Tornado memories

The Independent
Originally Published Saturday, June 3, 1995

Even 15 years later, night of June 3 remains vivid to many G.I. residents

Most events fade from the memory with the passage of time. But the people who were in Grand Island will never forget June 3, 1980.

"Many Islanders awoke Wednesday morning to a gray, dirty sky that seemed to hint something terrible had happened in the Third City," The Independent reported in its account of tornadoes that killed five people, injured at least 250 others and caused more than $300 million in damage.

The community itself seemed to be leveled, prone and gasping for its own life. Starr Elementary school, two supermarkets, one bowling alley, a motel, several restaurants and fast-food establishments were among the 49 businesses completely destroyed.

The Veterans Affairs Medical Center, which stood against the forceful blast of the tornadoes, still received $1 million in damages. Many other businesses sustained major damage.

The day began as any other summer day. The weather forecast was for a 20 percent chance of thundershowers. But by mid-evening clouds had built to 60,000 feet to the north and west of Grand Island. The National Weather Service picked up a "hook echo" on radar on at 9 p.m. the sirens sounded in Grand Island.

From that point on, the horror and heroism in Grand Island made June 3, 1980 different from any other day the community has ever experienced. Even as fire fighters and ambulance crews responded to alarms on the north side of town, the tornadoes continued an hour-long assault on the south side.

The storm has been described as a fluke by meteorologists. Most tornadoes roar across an area at 40 or 50 miles and hour. This storm just sat on the community, spinning off seven major tornadoes and hundreds of mini-tornadoes. Tornadoes are supposed to spin counterclockwise and make left turns but two made right turns and a third actually made a U-turn.

The tornadoes first assaulted northwest Grand Island, then to an area east of the VA Medical Center. The worst damage took place later in the storm along South Locust.

Today there are few reminders that such a horrible storm ever took place in Grand Island. Long-time residents talk about the beautiful trees that are gone and a handful of vacant lots and buildings remain along South Locust. The man-made hill at Ryder Park is where much of the tornado debris was piled and buried and is the only monument to the storm. The community managed such a complete recovery that newcomers and visitors cannot believe the event ever took place.

But those who went through the horror and recovery will never forget what it took to survive the night and rebuild the community. June 3, 1980 was the community's greatest tribulation, but it also was Grand Island's finest hour.