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June 5, 1980
Toll from tornado reaches 4 deaths


Editors Note: This story was compiled by reporter L. Kent Wolgamott from reports gathered by reporters Jim Titsworth, Dick Placzek and Harold Reutter.

Originally Published Wednesday, June 5, 1980

The death toll from the tornadoes which ripped through Grand Island Tuesday increased to four late Wednesday afternoon when emergency authorities found a fourth body in the rubble of the Dairy Queen on the southwest corner of Stolley Park Road and South Locust Street.

Robin Larson, 17, was thrown nearly a block from her trailer, at the Tipton Trailer Court on South Locust, according to Deputy Council Attorney P. Stephen Potter, who is acting as county coroner.

Potter said Larson and her fiance were both thrown out of the trailer during the storm. Her fiance was hospitalized.

Larson's sister said her husband had spent the whole day searching for her and did not contact authorities until 4 p.m.

The other three victims were identified by Potter as Charles Peterson, mid-60s, found dead in his bed at 3100 S. Locust; Ronny Leece, 30, Central City, found in the rubble of the Pagoda Lounce and Denise Behring, 19, found dead in a car in northwest Grand Island.

Two other Grand Island men died of heart attacks Wednesday while cleaning up debris, Assistant City Attorney Bill Shreffler said.

The tornadoes were more devastating than the twister which hit Omaha in 1975 and did about $140 million of damage, Nebraska Adjutant General Edward Binder said Thursday.

The tornadoes were more devastating because there was no pattern or path to then destroy in, Binder said.

Grand Island's first massive cleanup or wreckage from the tornadoes began Thursday morning after the city went through a quiet Wednesday night.

However, residents across the city waited for utilities and water to be restored to their homes, something officials said might take up to a week.

The city will be sealed off Friday at 8 p.m. to prevent looters and sightseers from entering, Police Chief Howard Bacon announced Thursday morning. No one will be allowed to enter Grand Island except residents and those having business in the city.

The ban will continue through Sunday evening, when officials will decide the time at which it will be lifted, Bacon added.

President Carter officially declared Hall County a federal disaster area at about 6 p.m. Wednesday. The declaration allows a series of federal programs including loan, grants and other assistance to come into the community.

Volunteers with trucks, tractors, loaders and their hands met at the Kmart emergency command post early Thursday morning and were dispatched to various locations in the leveled areas to begin cleaning up debris.

Rep. Virginia Smith said Thursday that Federal Emergency Management Agency will establish a mobile office in Grand Island Saturday morning. The location of the office has not been determined. The agency is planning to locate two additional units in Grand Island, Smith said.

Smith said she would be meeting with Veterans' Administration and FEMA officials Thursday afternoon to work out details of the program.

A National Guard engineer task force from South Dakota may soon be in the city to assist with the clean-up. South Dakota and Nebraska state officials were making plans Thursday morning to bring the unit it, according to city attorney Keith Sinor.

Helicopters hovered above the city Wednesday night while police and national guardsmen patrolled the damaged area to prevent looting.

Three persons were arrested for violating Wednesday night's curfew, two of them also faced petty theft charges as a result of looting incidents, according to Shreffer. A fourth person was arrested for assaulting a police officer after being caught in a restricted area where damage had occurred.

Shots were fired in three different parts of the southeast area of the city Wednesday night by citizens, Shreffler said. All the shots reportedly arouse from misunderstandings, he said. No arrests were made.

However, Shreffler said, the night was relatively quiet and the looting was considered minor.

There were no major fires in the city Wednesday night, according to city fire officials. State Fire Marshall Wally Barnett Wednesday night said it would be difficult to fight large fires in the city because of the water delivery problem. Fire officials said the threat of gas leaks was the worst problem facing them Thursday morning.

Potter asked that those who have friends or loved ones missing contact authorities with the last known address of the missing so the scope of the search can be limited.

Approximately 40 people remained unaccounted for as of Thursday morning, Sinor said. The house-to-house check for victims was completed late Wednesday, he said.

The unaccounted-for are not expected to be victims of the tornado, he said.

Officials said they expected most of the people to be found staying with friends or neighbors or in emergency shelters.

Federal officials also updated damage figures as they continued to survey the destruction.

Eric Jenkins of the Federal Emergency Management Agency said that 1,000 homes were destroyed in the county and 2,000 homes were damaged.

About 700 structures, including more than 50 businesses, were destroyed or damaged beyond use, Sinor said. A dollar damage estimate was not available Thursday morning.

City officials said Thursday morning that people can flush toilets once or twice a day, but they said no showers, baths or use of appliances with high consumption, such as washing machines and dishwashers should be used.

Most Grand Island grocery stores were open Thursday morning with all products for sale except frozen foods and fresh meat.

The city's two hospitals, Lutheran Memorial and St. Francis Medical Center, reported no major problems on Wednesday. An emergency generator at Lutheran failed during the afternoon and emergency patients were moved to St. Francis.

At a Wednesday evening meeting with Grand Island businessmen, Barnett asked that all businesses be inspected for possible fire hazards.

City Fire Marshall Jimmy Carter said the inspections probably will begin about 1 p.m. on Thursday.

The businessmen expressed concern about looting and vandalism but were reassured by Binder.

About 230 National Guardsmen patrolled the damaged area Wednesday night, enforcing the 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew. The curfew will be in effect Thursday night in the same area.

The 10 members of the Grand island National Guard unit were flown back to the city Wednesday and five more drove back from summer camp at Fort Carson, Colo.

The business group will meet again Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at City Hall, Mayor Robert Kriz said. Kriz also said he didn't realize so many people were willing to help in the clean-up and recovery.

Persons entering southeastern Grand Island will still be required to have a valid pass and proper identification. Passes are no longer required in the northwest section of the city.