20 Years Later, Grand Island Can't Escape Tornadoes' Scars
June 03, 2000 
Officially, there will be one small ceremony today at Grand Island's College Park to commemorate the 20th anniversary of one the most devastating group of tornadoes ever to rip through the Midwest.

But few who were in the south-central Nebraska community June 3, 1980, need a ceremony to help them remember the seven tornadoes that killed five people, injured nearly 200 and damaged more than 3,000 homes and businesses.
pz:R, right, 0
Howard Bacon, Grand Island police chief on June 3, 1980, stands atop a mound in Ryder Park where debris from homes destroyed by the tornadoes is buried.

The reminders are all around them.

In Ryder Park, on the northwest side of town, a mound rises above the Little League fields that surround it. Beneath the grass lies brick and wood from destroyed homes.

"Tornado Hill is what everyone calls it," said Cherlyn Hayes, a survivor of the storm who hid in a neighbor's basement. "In winter, it's the place where kids go sledding."

From the top of the hill, which sits just west of town on U.S. Highway 30, one can see a city that, after more than $92 million in cleanup costs - $191.2 million today - has for the most part put the past behind it and is thriving once more.

Roger Nygaard, president of the Grand Island Area Chamber of Commerce, said there is a lot to be excited about in the city these days. Nearly $40 million in school improvements have been made in recent years. There are new businesses, such as Sam's Club and Menards, on Grand Island's north side and residential expansion to the south. The city's population has grown from 33,180 in 1980 to more than 41,000.

"The impact of the tornadoes is still felt here," said Nygaard, who moved to Grand Island eight years ago. "The people who were here at the time are still sensitive about it. But we've grown a lot, especially in the past decade."

But for many residents, 20 years haven't erased all the scars.

"There's little things that people new to Grand Island wouldn't notice," said Joe Toczek, who has been superintendent at Grand Island Northwest High School for 21 years. "Like you'll be driving along and on one side of the street are old trees and on the other, where a tornado hit, the replanted trees are smaller."

Toczek said a new construction project to enclose a courtyard at Northwest High School this spring uncovered some structural problems left over from the tornadoes - problems that crews had to address.

"Here it is 20 years later," Toczek said. "And we're still retouching and repairing problems from the tornadoes that we didn't even know we had."

The devastation also left lasting impressions on Grand Island's people.

"I never want to live through something like that again," said Howard Bacon, the city's since-retired police chief.

While most residents were seeking shelter in basements on June 3, 1980, Bacon was conducting rescue efforts.

"It was early when we got called to the north part of town, where we had a report that the first tornado had hit," Bacon said. "With the help of some other officers and firemen, we just started pulling people out from under debris.

"At one point myself and a couple of firemen were standing in the road and a double garage just came right down the street at us."

Bacon escaped unhurt and continued working all night. In the morning, he rode in a National Guard helicopter over the city.

"The only way I can describe it is that it looked like a big giant had come and walked over everything," Bacon said. "It's just amazing that more people weren't killed."

"We had made plans to set up a temporary morgue in the Kmart parking lot," said Emmett Arnett, who was Hall County chief deputy sheriff at the time. "But it was never needed."

Ken Dewey, a geosciences professor at the High Plains Climate Center of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, was among the first to arrive in Grand Island the following morning. He spent two days taking aerial and ground-level photographs.

"Only five people dead was inconceivable," said Dewey, who came to Nebraska in 1974 specifically to study tornadoes. "I was beyond 'in shock.'

"The destruction was amazing. It still stands out as the most unique tornado event in U.S. history. All thunderstorm systems move and have direction. The storm that spawned these tornadoes didn't move. It just hung over Grand Island."

Dewey said that "all the people did the right thing." Those who didn't have basements went to neighbors who did. For the duration of the tornado warnings - some three hours of siren blasts - people stayed inside.

Both Toczek and Hayes and their families were among those who spent much of the evening underground.

"That evening, our neighbor Larry Studley was out in his yard," Hayes said. "He had been a farm boy and was always watching the sky. He said things didn't look good, so us and about 20 or so of our neighbors crowded into his basement."

"We were down there for three or four hours," Toczek said. "We would just take turns looking out the window saying things like, 'Oops, there goes your garage.'"

By the morning of June 4, the damage could be fully assessed.

"The town really looked like a war zone," said Toczek, who lost a garage, part of his roof and the north wall of his kitchen. "There were National Guard helicopters flying around; media were all over the place."

Search and recovery efforts continued for two days. Then the rebuilding process began and lasted for years.

"I kind of felt like it was a boom for the economy," Toczek said. "A lot of people came into this area looking for construction jobs."

Today, chamber officials say Grand Island is experiencing another boom. The newcomers steadily streaming into the city, however, have little idea just how far the city has come in the past 20 years.

This morning in College Park, an address by Ivy Ruckman, an author of a book about the tornadoes, might help others understand the past, but storm survivors can see it in every rebuilt structure, mangled tree and - of course - that hill.

"Yes, I knew the anniversary was coming up," Bacon said. "It's hard to forget June 3."