Saturday, June 3, 1995
Fifteen years later, G.I.'s tornado scars healed
By Harold Reutter
A newcomer to Grand Island would never know that 15 years ago today, seven tornadoes ripped through the community.
In their wake, the tornadoes left 357 homes and 118 apartments and mobile homes completely destroyed. Another 440 homes suffered major damage, some to the point of being uninhabitable.
Today, few physical scars remain to remind people of the devastation left behind by the freak storm. But for people who lived through that night, the memories are vivid.
Dee Freeman, whose home was destroyed in the tornado that swept through southeast Grand Island, can remember the date with perfect clarity.
"It was six months to the day that my husband died," Freeman said. "It was on my husband's birthday."
She said her Christian faith pulled her through the crisis of being a widow who was struggling to carry on the family business by herself and rebuilding her home.
Freeman said she never gave a thought to pulling up stakes and moving to another location.
"We worked so hard to get that home," said Freeman, speaking of herself and her late husband. She said the location had too many memories to move elsewhere.
"This is my home," said Freeman, recalling her feelings. "This is where I raised my children."
Freeman was forced to live in a trailer for several months while her home was being rebuilt, a situation that was at times primitive. She said she shared her trailer with mice, who got through openings for the mobile home's plumbing. That situation did not last very long.
"I got Oscar, my daughter's cat, and he took care of those things in about three days," Freeman said.
Still, Freeman was not content to stay in the trailer a moment longer than necessary. Shortly before Thanksgiving, she moved into a finished room in the basement and lived there, even while workmen continued to work on the remainder of the house. The end of work could not come too soon.
"It was the happiest day when curtains went up in the windows," Freeman said.
That story of rebuilding homes and businesses was repeated hundreds of times throughout Grand Island. Craig Lewis, Grand Island chief building inspector, was in the construction business in 1980.
"I was out there building homes then," Lewis said. "About every house we rebuilt, we put back better than it was."
People rebuilt their homes, but included an addition, he said. Or they would put in the skylight they always wanted or put shake shingles on the roof instead of conventional shingles.
Like Freeman, many people lived in government-owned trailers while their homes were being rebuilt or repaired.
Numerous trailers were placed on driveways while homes were restored. Others were placed in temporary trailer parks.
Lewis recalled government trailers being placed on school property on South Cherry Street and Sun Valley near Fonner Park, as well as the "Mae Clark school site" which is now home to the new West Lawn Elementary that opens this fall.
Lewis, who had a newborn child, can remember his own house being without electricity for 11 days. He said that was not an easy situation for his wife and he acknowledged he was in no position to be of much help.
"I was working from sun-up to sundown," Lewis said. The grind of work was punctuated one day when former President Jimmy Carter visited Grand Island.
Lewis was driving on East Bismark Road when he spotted the commotion caused by Carter's motorcade. The president had left his limousine to talk with some of the residents whose homes had been destroyed or damaged. Although Carter's visit had been publicized in advance, Lewis said he still was startled to come upon the president's motorcade.
He said had a very simple reaction to the chance sighting: "Holy Smoke! Look who that is!"
While Lewis was busy building houses, other people were busy selling homes to people who needed replacements for what had been lost or damaged.
Real estate agent Gregg Roberts, who lives on North Locust near the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, lost a garage to the storm. He said damage was capricious. While some neighbors lost entire homes or roofs, neighbors across the street "didn't lose a leaf from their trees."
As soon as it was possible to travel about Grand Island, Roberts was out selling homes to people who needed to replace their lost housing. It was not a difficult job, because Roberts said people insisted on only a few amenities: an undamaged roof, a basement and electricity.
"The first thing they looked at was the roof and the second thing they looked at was the basement," Roberts said. "They'd go down into the basement and find out where the safest place to be was, just in case there was another storm."
"Now, they don't even think of that," Roberts said. "Some people would prefer not to have a basement because they're concerned about water problems."
Roberts said contractors overbuilt slightly following the tornadoes. That situation was exacerbated by skyrocketing interest rates and an agricultural recession that resulted in more than 650 vacant homes on the market by 1986. Now, there are perhaps 175 available homes in a market where demand for housing is very strong.
Roberts said a city of Grand Island's size would have a more comfortable market if 250 to 300 homes were available instead of fewer than 200.
It's not that Grand Island has not added homes since 1980, when the housing census showed just over 9,300 single-family homes. In the past 15 years, another 1,800 single-family homes and numerous multi-family dwellings have been added to Grand Island, although the figures were inflated slightly by the 1984 annexations.
Entirely new housing subdivisions and the addition of the Kmart, Wal-Mart, Sam's Club, Menard's and other retail stores are testimony to the fact that Grand Island not only regained most of what it lost, but moved substantially beyond that point.
Dick Good, retired head of the Grand Island Area Chamber of Commerce, said the community did miss an opportunity by not pressing for a South Locust interchange in 1980.
He said the political climate would have been favorable to building an interchange for a city recovering from such devastation. But Good said all attention was focused on getting back what was lost, not on a new interstate interchange.
"Nobody thought of it," he said. "It fell through the cracks."
Good said that is why South Locust is the only area where visible scars of the 1980 tornadoes remain, mostly in the form of bare concrete slabs where commercial enterprises once stood.
Still, Good recalls the months following the 1980 tornadoes as a time of exceptional community spirit and cooperation. The natural differences of opinion that exist in any community were put aside in the interest of getting things done.
"You could call a meeting and have 100 percent attendance within an hour," he said.
In the immediate aftermath of June 3, 1980, Good said Grand Island had a unity that appears only in times of genuine crisis.