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Ten Years
G.I. tornadoes among 'most' memorable'

By Molly Klocksin
Independent Staff Writer

Ten years later, meteorologist Roger Wakimoto considers the Grand Island tornadoes among the ''most memorable'' he has ever studied.

Wakimoto, associate professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of California-Los Angeles, was a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago in 1980 when he came to Grand Island to research the destructive tornadoes.

Wakimoto arrived in Grand Island a day and a half after the tornadoes struck because his mentor, T. Theodore Fujita of the University of Chicago, was unable to make the trip.

What Wakimoto saw surprised him.

''I'd never seen anything like this before,'' Wakimoto said.

The Grand Island tornadoes broke all the rules of tornado movement, he said.

For instance, the huge storm rotated counterclockwise, but three tornadoes spawned by the storm rotated clockwise. To meteorologists, that was significant because ''we had never heard of that,'' Wakimoto said.

Wakimoto and Fujita, together with other tornado experts, mapped the path of the Grand Island tornadoes.

Their map shows that seven tornadoes touched down in and around Grand Island on the night of June 3, 1980. The tornado that leveled much of South Locust Street ''might have been one of the strongest tornadoes ever,'' Wakimoto said.

At some points, that tornado reached F-4, the highest measurement of damaging winds on a scale named after Fujita.

Although the Grand Island tornadoes were not the most damaging ever, they moved so slowly about 5 mph compared to many tornadoes moving as fast as 60-70 mph that ''they still caused considerable damage,'' Wakimoto said.

The storm moved from the northwest to the southeast, instead of the more normal southwest-to-northeast pattern, Wakimoto said.

That alone is not unheard of. ''We do have some storms that come out of the northwest than spawn tornadoes,'' said Dennis Ronne, a meteorological technician for the National Weather Service in Grand Island.

However, the slow movement of the storms and their behavior two of the tornadoes apparently made right turns and another in the southeast made a U-turn remains highly unusual, Ronne said. So is Wakimoto's conclusion that the seven ''mother tornadoes'' may have produced as many as 100 mini-tornadoes, Ronne said.

Wakimoto based his theory on the path of damage and on information from the weather service radar at the Central Nebraska Regional Airport in Grand Island.

The radar's proximity to the storms was rare, and that's one reason why so much information was available, Wakimoto said.

''We learned a lot'' from the Grand Island tornadoes, he said. ''Hopefully, this kind of information will come back and help the general public'' by improving forecasting he said.

These days, Wakimoto's graduate students at UCLA study the Grand Island tornadoes.

''Anyone who has studied severe weather would have heard of the Grand Island case,'' he said.

The other major severe storm Wakimoto recalls is the April 3-4, 1974, outbreak in the South and Midwest, which caused 350 deaths.

The number of deaths from the Grand Island tornadoes was ''amazingly low'' considering the severity of the storm, Wakimoto said.

Although some Grand Islanders may feel immunized from such a disater, there is no guarantee it couldn't happen again, he said.

''Some people say you don't get hit twice, but you could get hit again,'' Wakimoto said.

If that happens, forecasters say they are more efficient now than in 1980, and that their forecasts will be more accurate during the 1990s.

Forecasting tornadoes remains an inexact science, said Don Davis, meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service office in Grand Island.

''We're going to miss some. We can't possibly catch every tornado here in Nebraska, but I think we are better than we were 10-15 years ago,'' Davis said. Nebraska's network of spotters has improved every year, and ''in that respect we are a lot better off than we were 10-15 years ago,'' he said.

On the night of June 3, 1980, the weather service had not issued a tornado watch. The forecast called for only a 20 percent chance of thundershowers, and nothing about weather conditions that night seemed unsual until the storm formed suddenly, Ronne said. The weather service then issued a tornado warning, and all of the deaths resulting from the storm occurred after the tornado warning was issued, he said. The tornadoes terrorized the town for almost three hours, and many people assumed they could not possibly last that long, he said.

These days, stronger computers are helping the National Severe Storms Forecast Center get information from the center in Kansas City to local forecast offices sooner, said Frederick Ostby, director of the center.

''We have a lot more information now than we did then and we're able to use it better,'' Ostby said. ''We have sort of streamlined things so the operation is more efficient. It's sort of like the

Wall Street Journal faster, tougher and smarter.''

''It would be reasonable'' to say storms such as the Grand Island tornadoes would be predicted better now, especially after weather service offices around the country get more sophisticated radars, Ostby said.

During the 1990s, 115 weather service offices around the United States will get Next Generation Radars, nicknamed NEXRAD.

NEXRAD is a Doppler radar system able to detect wind speed and direction. That means forecasters will be able to observe the circulation that develops before a funnel touches down, allowing them to issue more accurate warnings, he said.

Radars the weather service uses now show only the intensity of rain, and occasionally a ''hook echo'' that indicates a possible tornado, Ostby said.

The first NEXRAD radar will be built in Norman, Okla., in 1991. The Grand Island weather service office is scheduled to move to a new office just north of Hastings in 1992, and the new office will have a NEXRAD radar.