Date is fading into Grand Island history but vigilance is an issue for the future
June 3, 1980, remains the most infamous date in Grand Island history. Yet the passage of 17 years makes the date more epic and less real.
The measurements of the day have been repeated so often they are committed to memory: Six tornadoes, five deaths, 36 hospitalized, and more than 400 injured. The destruction covered more than 150 city blocks and the cost reached more than $300 million. Losses included 357 homes, 33 mobile homes, 85 apartments and 49 businesses.
More than 2,323 storm victims visited federal disaster centers for insurance and countless others sought private relief. In addition to the total destruction, the storm also had seriously damaged another 440 homes, 24 mobile homes and 34 apartments.
Some landmarks disappeared -- the OK farm, Meves Bowl, the South Locust Jack and Jill, the United Veterans Club, the Legion Club, the Knights of Columbus headquarters, Goodwill Industries and the rows of beautiful trees along South Locust.
The tornadoes inflicted their worst damage along South Locust Street and to points east. But other damaged areas included Capital Heights, the northern area of the city, Hidden Lakes. The swath of the tornadoes also covered rural areas to the northwest of Grand Island and to the southeast.
President Jimmy Carter came to Grand Island to survey the damage and so did the internationally known tornado specialist, Dr. T. Theodore Fujita. Carter said to Grand Island residents: "You will not be abandoned." The federal government did respond, along with hundreds of other communities and private agencies. About the storm, Dr. Fujita said: "In all my years, I never have seen such a thing."
The storm cell was a unique one. It backed into the city and sat for several hours, spawning the tornadoes. Tornadoes are supposed to turn left but at least two made sharp right turns and other made a full U-turn.
Yet the recovery of Grand Island is almost as remarkable as the storm. Within a year, most homes and businesses had rebuilt. Even today, some open lots remain on South Locust but the city made a quick recovery. Grim determination, caring neighbors and strong leadership made the rebuilding so complete that the massive destructive is now more than reality.
Can it every happen again? Of course it can. Grand Island and countless other communities in Nebraska reside in tornado alley. Tornado sightings and warnings remain common occurrences and severe storm preparedness is an important part of living in this part of the country.
June 3, 1980, has faded well into the past, but the threat of tornadoes are with us always.
Bill Brennan is executive editor at The Independent