1980-06-03: Grand Island, NE

Mark Blue

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This was a little before my storm chasing passion began, but it helped me determine what subject I would eventually major in a couple of years later at UNL. I experienced my first tornado when I was 5 years old in Minden, NE, on my grand parents farm (it took a direct hit), so I always loved severe weather from childhood. During the summer of 1980 I was fresh out of high school and working a good summer job trying to save money for college. I worked for a company that was located on a farm near Cozad, NE. They were in the business of selling grain tanks, machine sheds, quonsets, the type of structures you would expect to find on a farm if that makes sense.

Anyhow, I was charged with driving from Cozad to Columbus in a 1-ton dually pickup with a very long flat bed trailer on the morning of June 4, 1980, to pick up building parts at the Behlen factory in Columbus and bring them back. Once I hit the road I fired up the radio and quickly learned that several tornadoes had ripped through Grand Island the night before and I was excited to say the least, because my driving route would be on Highway 30 straight through Grand Island. On the western outskirts of Grand Island there was a National Guardsman heading off traffic, so I only saw the damage from a distance such as the VA Hospital. On the way back from Columbus there wasn't anyone on the east side of town directing traffic, so I headed straight for the area that was hit the hardest around Locust street. Keep in mind this is based only on my memories of that day, but I'm sure guys like Tim Marshall can share their experiences as I believe I remember him doing one of his first damage assessments for this event.

My most vivid memory was driving by this house that was right on Locust street and there was this man standing on his front steps looking like he was in shock and totally dejected (even that's an understatement). It was no wonder because that was all that was left of his home - the front steps. The home was swept clean off of the foundation and there was nothing left. I'll never forget that mental picture for the rest of my life. I spent some time driving around the Locust street area where the F4 hit and was simply blown away at the extent of the damage. Sheer and utter devastation period. I'll be anxiously awaiting the experiences of others who went through this event or have memories to share in connection with June 3, 1980.
 
Dec 4, 2003
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Here's a good shot of the Grand Island storm, before and 2 hours later. It began producing tornadoes within about 30 minutes after that last shot, and the big F3 or F4 tornado hit about another 30 minutes later. There's definitely evidence of a pre-existing boundary, judging by the flattened Sc streets north of Grand Island and the more vertical towers closer to I-80.



Tim
 

Mark Blue

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Those are nice images of the storm Tim. Here's a couple more links of information I discovered a year or so back when I was searching the internet for anything and everything I could find.

http://www.hprcc.unl.edu/nebraska/giphoto3.html

http://www.hprcc.unl.edu/nebraska/grandisland1980-2000.html

I was friends with someone on the football team that went through this event and I could tell it put the fear of God in him. Some may remember him, some may not, but his name was Tom Rathman and he ended up playing fullback on the 49ers team during their championship run in the late 80s and early 90s. He was number 44.
 
Oct 25, 2004
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One of my cousins was hunkered down in a building that night. She told me "Joel...they really DO sound like trains".
Of course I remember Tom Rathman. He was a stud with a capitol "S". You were on which football team with him where? Was he in G.I that night??
Grand Island is kind of like "Ground Zero" for tornadic action in Nebaska...at least it used to be. It's in Hall county...which, if you go thru the SPC records since the 1950's....seems to be the most active county. That and Buffalo county next to there (Kearney).
 

Mark Blue

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To clarify, I didn't play football in college. My roommate during 1984-85 played I-back at Nebraska - his name was Greg Divis. He had the unfortunate situation to play behind Mike Rozier (Heisman winner) and Jeff Smith on the 1983-84 roster. Jeff Smith was the guy who dropped the 2 point conversion in the end zone against Miami in the 84 Orange Bowl causing Nebraska to lose the National Championship if that jogs your memory. My roommate Greg and Tom Rathman were best friends, so Tom spent a great deal of time over at our house hanging out, so that's how I got to know him. We had some good times back then doing all sorts of crazy stuff! I wish I could go back in a time warp once in awhile to be quite honest!

Anyhow, one night when we were hanging out Tom told me about the night of June 3, 1980, in that he spent several hours in the basement terrified with his family as the tornadoes sat over Grand Island. I believe his dad was a doctor there in town and Tom was in high school at the time. I could tell that it freaked him out by the way he told the story.

About 6 months later in 1985, some severe storms rolled into Lincoln so my roommate Greg and I jumped in my car for some old fashioned storm chasing. The tornado sirens were blaring for quite some time that evening in Lincoln. When we came home Tom Rathman was on our porch waiting for us and he was major league upset that we weren't there to let him take shelter in our basement. Tom and his wife lived in a trailer house in the north part of Lincoln, so rather than ride out a storm in a death trap he ran over to our house to take shelter, not knowing that we were gone chasing the storm. Needless to say he lashed out at us because he was really scared based on his experience a few years earlier in Grand Island. There was a point where I thought he was going to kick my butt, but he finally calmed down after we talked for awhile. He thought I was crazy for wanting to chase storms and see a tornado first hand, so that's how I knew the night of June 3, 1980, put the fear of God in him. Sorry for getting so long winded, but that's some background about the whole deal and how I knew Tom, who was basically a survivor of that terrible night in Grand Island.
 

Mark Blue

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I'm glad someone finally jumped in here to add some content. I backed my way into the NWS file directory at this link:

http://www.crh.noaa.gov/images/gid/Events/GI1980/

It's kind of a neat way to look at the source documents posted on the web page you referenced Darren. The damage I saw where the home owner was standing on the steps of his home is depicted here as tornado #5:

http://www.hprcc.unl.edu/nebraska/twistermap-grandisland-gii.html

It was no wonder his home was leveled to the foundation as it was an F4 that steam rolled its' way down Locust Street.
 
06/03/1980: Grand Island, NE

Last April and May Mark Blue started talking about the June 3rd 1980 tornadoes that hit Grand Island, Nebraska. I was looking back thru old newspaper accounts today of that event. That event will always be of interest to me as I was living in Grand Island at that time, one block north of the north entrance of Fonner Park, on the south edge of the F4 tornado that came in from east of town and went west up E. Bismark St. cutting across to S. Locust St. before going south out of town. Anyway, the local newpaper showed what is believed to be the only known photo of any of the Grand Island tornadoes (that photo was taken by Rod Gartner of Grand Island and was taken looking north from Johnson Dr.). I realize most of the tornadoes occurred after sunset and that may be why there are no other photos (the first tornado touched down at 8:45-PM and last one touched down at 10:25-PM). But, were there any of you veteran storm chasers on that storm? And did any of you get any photos of any of the Grand Island tornadoes? Even if you didn't get any photos but were there I would like to hear your story about that event.
 
Mar 22, 2009
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Quite a Sight!!

If my memories serve me right (which they usually don't :D), I was living in Crete NE at the time. I noticed there were storm and tornado warnings issued for Grand Island on TV and such.

Since I lived in a part of town where there were lots of trees, I went to a elementary school playground that gave me good visibility toward the W - NW. It was already after night-fall when I arrived at the school grounds. I was treated to a spectacular lightning show! Seems like there were multiple flashes both C-C and C-G, even some I-C strikes!! :eek:

I later learned there were mutiple tornadoes (10 if I remember correctly). There was even 1 or 2 that were anti-cyclonic! :eek: This historic weather night later became the basis for a movie "Night of the Twisters".

Interesting to learn about how a couple of former Nebraska football players came close to losing their lives in the G.I. tornadoes. Who knows, we may never had the experience of watching Tom Rathman playing football for NU! :eek: And I remember another player from Tecumseh NE, Tony Davis, playing. NU announcer Lyle Bremster nicknamed him the "Tecumseh Tornado". For years I've always wondered how he got that nickname. Now I do!! :D
 
Mar 21, 2005
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Lonnie,
My aunt/uncle/cousins must have lived on the other side of your block. (S. Plum St.) just N or Fonner Park. They are only about 5/6 blocks from the Meves Bowling Alley that was hit hard and about 4 blocks from South Locust St. (where a grocery store was leveled to the concrete with only the walk-in freezers still standing).

As luck would have it, a co-worker brought me in a G.I. newspaper insert dedicated to the tornadoes. It is yellow and wrinkled, but I'll see if I can scan it in and put it online. Not sure if it is the same as, or adds to the GITwisters link (above) but I'm still glad to have it in my hands this afternoon!
 

Mark Blue

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I'll be eagerly waiting to see what you can do Darren! I was pleasantly surprised to see this thread bumped up this morning. I'm betting there will be a nice historic article in the Grand Island newspaper this year as it will be the 30 year anniversary of the event. They typically cover it in the newspaper every time an anniversary rolls around from what I've seen over the years. I was able to drive through the neighborhoods around Locust street the day after it happened on my way back from Columbus and there was major devastation (see initial posts). I'll never forget that guy standing on his front steps and all that was left was the foundation to his home. I sat there at the stop sign idling for two or three minutes just looking at him and that image is burned into my memory and will be for the rest of my life. Unfortunately I came unprepared as I only learned of what had happened the next morning while on the road and back in 1980 they didn't sell disposable cameras, otherwise I would have picked one up on the way.
 
Larry, Darren, Mark, thanks for your responses. In the years since the tornadoes I've heard accounts of the storm like Larry's, people who watched the storm clouds from afar, from west of Grand Island at Wood River and Kearney. Like Larry they tell of the lighting and of how dark and high the clouds were over Grand Island. If I remember right I think it was said the tops were over 60,000 feet. Darren, at the time I lived on South Eugene Street, next to the street your relatives lived on. The lady that lived in the house behind us was injured at Meves Bowling Alley. It was a long night, everytime we came up from the basement and thought things were over we had to go back down because another one (tornado) was coming. I remember trying to patch up a hole in the roof of our house (probably was after tornado number 5 passed by just to our northwest) and doing it from the attic side, I didn't go on top outside because of the lighting. I think it was a storm that surprised everyone, if I remember right there was only a 20% chance of thunderstorms for that night. So I wonder if any storm chasers were even thinking about watching that area that day.
 
May 22, 2007
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I think it was a storm that surprised everyone, if I remember right there was only a 20% chance of thunderstorms for that night. So I wonder if any storm chasers were even thinking about watching that area that day.
This is very true. I talked to someone who either did or helped do a historical recreated of the the synoptic conditions and storm dynamics, and I remember they found a statement from the weather office that attributed the storm initiating due to something that was completely BS, so they clearly didn't even know why this storm was happening. I think in their study they attributed it to a jet streak entrance/exit region. I believe there was not a huge amount of shear, and and little shear/helicity in the lower levels (Does anyone know what the surface winds were like that day?). I think the only thing supportive of significant severe weather that they found was an absolutely ridiculous amount of CAPE. I'm talking over 6000. They basically concluded that the insane CAPE created it's own environment. This makes a lot of sense to me, especially in regards to explaining the 3 anti-cyclonic tornadoes. So I find this to be an incredibly interesting storm and wonder if anyone can recall any storms even close to being similar to this. Anyone experienced another storm with over 6000 CAPE?
 
Nov 28, 2005
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I know a boundary was right on I-80 corridor so am sure it was a typical early June favorable setup...mega high CAPEs...east winds north of the boundary...and a hell cap south of the boundary. This is one day I would like to rewind to...
 
Ryan, regarding "does anyone know what the surface winds were like that day?". If I remember correctly, hot humid fairly strong winds were blowing from the southeast when I stepped out the door from work at 4:00-PM that day. I remember sitting on the front steps (east side) of our house after supper and that wind still blowing in our faces. Our house was just on the south edge of the westbound F4 tornado that occured later that evening. It think it was what they called tornado #5. Brian, what kind of boundary was right on the I-80 corridor, a warm front?
 
May 22, 2007
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This page has a collection of a bunch of articles on this event: http://www.talkweather.com/forums/index.php?/topic/39712-the-grand-island-tornadoes/

According to these it was a stationary front that had been hovering around Nebraska for about the past 5 days. One also mentioned that weather service locations at Alliance and North Platte estimated the storm was 70,000 feet tall. Numerous articles also mention how the typical ingredients for severe weather weren't really there that day, so I have some doubts about it being a typical early June set-up. Also, they mention the boundary and synoptic conditions being more typical of later in summer. Not to mentional all the atypical features of the storm itself such as multiple anti-cyclonic tornados and tornados moving at 5mph.
 
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Thanks Ryan for posting the site with the articles about this event. For Nebraska based chasers (or any other chasers if in the area) Dr. Roger Wakimoto and Don Davis will be talking about the June 3rd 1980 tornadoes at the Grand Theater, downtown Grand Island on June 2nd 2010 at 7:30-PM. I will be unable to attend as my wife and I will be in TN for a few days. Perhaps a chaser that may be able to be there could post a report about it.
 

GPhillips

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The most successful severe storm forecasts back in the day were for more classic, dynamic systems compared to somewhat more subtle systems. Some things we know well now, weren't known well then. Maddox and Doswell wrote a 1982 Severe Local Storms Conference preprint on this case and a couple other cases contrasting the Miller table parameters in more and less dynamic events.

http://www.flame.org/~cdoswell/publications/Maddox&Doswell_12thSLS.pdf
(scanned in so very large file)
 
The Grand Island Event was my introduction to meteorology. I say that because, as a child growing up in MD, I learned to read on the book called "Night of the Twisters" written by a teenager who survived the tornadoes that night. Nebraksa was a far away and exotic place where tornadoes were! It was also encouraging that a teenager had written the book, not some adult- and that maybe someday I could write a book too.
 

Doug Ott

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One of my cousins was hunkered down in a building that night. She told me "Joel...they really DO sound like trains".
Of course I remember Tom Rathman. He was a stud with a capitol "S". You were on which football team with him where? Was he in G.I that night??
Grand Island is kind of like "Ground Zero" for tornadic action in Nebaska...at least it used to be. It's in Hall county...which, if you go thru the SPC records since the 1950's....seems to be the most active county. That and Buffalo county next to there (Kearney).
Thayer couunty is always active. Surprisingly though, sc ne seems to be little slow this spring. I was way too young to remeber this storm. 3 years of age. I probably crapped in my pants, but not because of the storm. I have never really researched this storm, and thanks to Mark for bringing it up. I wanna say that night at G.I., there were up to 7 tornados on the ground. Like I said though, I never researched it and that could be wrong. Be hard to believe. At the same time it was one for history though.