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Ten Years
Officials helped city return to normal

By Harold Reutter
Independent Staff Writer

It took extraordinary efforts by city officials and local residents to get things back to ordinary in Grand Island following the 1980 tornadoes.

In the days following the storm, city officials had to concern themselves with everything from warning people not to flush their toilets to passing an emergency ordinance on licensing contractors.

Here is a brief rundown of the issues that concerned city officials in the days immediately after June 3, 1980:

Residents were warned not to flush their toilets more than once or twice a day because the city had no electricity to operate the lift stations for the city sewer system.

Gasoline engines and hoses were being use to operate the lift stations, but they could not operate at normal capacity until electricity was restored to the city. City officials cautioned that people risked sewer backups if they tried to use their sewer systems normally.

People also were cautioned not to take showers or waste water for the first several days after the storm, because of the low water pressure in town.

Not taking showers was a hardship as temperatures reached 86 on June 4, 96 on June 5 and 92 on June 6.

An immediate burning ban was implemented in the first few days after the tornado because of the risk of fire.

The health department said people should boil water or add a few drops of chlorine bleach to their water to make sure it was safe to drink. By Saturday, the water supply was declared safe to drink without those precautions.

On Saturday, June 7, the Grand Island City Council passed an emergency ordinance to require licensing of contractors to prevent ''rip-off artists'' from coming into Grand Island and doing shoddy or non-existent repair and reconstruction work.

About 700 people applied for licenses and 600 licenses were granted.

However, the ordinance turned out to be only partially effective. Some homeowners ending up paying contractors in full for work done on their homes, with the amount supposedly covering the cost of supplies and subcontractors.

However, some contractors did not pay for building supplies or work done by subcontractors. Lumber companies and subcontractors then filed liens on people's homes to force homeowners to pay for supplies or for subcontracting work.

In effect, some homeowners were forced to pay twice for some of the supplies or work done on their homes.

The problem with liens existed prior to the June 3 tornadoes. In the year before the tornadoes, 89 ''mechanics liens'' were filed in Grand Island. The following year, 207 mechanics liens totaling $450,000 were filed.

Despite the increase, city officials believed the licensing of contractors kept problems to a minimum, considering the massive reconstruction effort that occurred.

Nebraska's lien laws were revised in 1981, but City Attorney Keith Sinor said the state should have abolished the lien laws. He said that would have forced lumber yards and subcontractors to go after non-paying contractors instead of forcing the homeowners to collect their money.

By Monday, June 9, the Grand Island City Council had approved placing mobile homes on existing commercial pads, in driveways where new homes were being constructed and on group sites.

By Monday, June 16, the council chose the Mae Clark school site in the Continental Gardens subdivision, Fonner Park and south of Sunset Avenue and east of Cherry Street.

The sites were picked partly to help stabilize elementary school populations in the fall.

About 30 residents from Continental Gardens appeared at the council meeting, expressing concerns about what mobile homes might do to property values for conventional homes in the area and wondering why they didn't have any input on the selection of the temporary mobile home site.

The council stood by the recommendation to choose those three sites and promised that the mobile homes would be removed within a year. Most temporary mobile homes were indeed moved out within a year.

By Friday, June 13, Mayor Bob Kriz was telling residents he planned to call for an election in November for a 1 percent city sales tax to help the city deal with the financial aftershocks of the storm.

That fall, Kriz promised to do away with the city-only portion of property taxes if voters approved the sales tax. Voters were not impressed, rejecting the proposed sales tax by nearly a 3-to-1 margin.

That overwhelming defeat made the subject of a city sales tax off limits until last fall, when voters approved a 1 percent sales tax by a 2-to-1 margin.

''Frankly, I haven't seen any compassion.''

With those words, Kriz fired a shot at then-Gov. Charles Thone over how much money the Federal Emergency Management Agency was going to pay to help repair disaster losses to public property, how much the state of Nebraska was going to pay, and how much the city of Grand Island was going to pay.

Until 1980, FEMA paid 100 percent of disaster losses. But with the Mount St. Helens volcanic eruption, the Cuba refugee crisis and other natural disasters that spring, the FEMA policy was changed to pick up 75 percent of the cost.

Kriz wanted Thone to urge FEMA to pick up 100 percent. If that was unsuccessful, he wanted the state of Nebraska, which had a large cash surplus at the time, to pick up the remaining 25 percent of storm-related losses.

Kriz argued that certain losses were not even covered by FEMA and would have to be paid by the city anyway. He also argued it was unfair to ask Grand Island taxpayers, many of whom had lost their homes and businesses, to pay for replacing public losses as well.

The cause was taken up by U.S. Sen. Edward Zorinsky and by state Sen. Ralph Kelly, who also argued for more generous help for Grand Island.

Eventually, the state ended up paying most of the so-called local share, helping Grand Island recover from the storm.

More than $600,000 was donated by individuals and organizations, with much of the money going to the Tornado Relief Fund overseen by the Grand Island Foundation. More than $100,000 went to the Grand Island Interfaith Task Force.

The money was given to individuals to help them recover from losses not covered by insurance or federal disaster programs. Some money helped plant trees to replace the ones that had been lost in the storm.