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June 6, 1980
One big vote of thanks

Column By Allen F. Schmahl
Independent Managing Editor

Two vivid memories from my childhood relate to tornadoes.

It was custom in the small northwest Iowa town where I grew up for the mothers to gather their small children and head for a neighborhood cave whenever severe weather threatened.

It was something of a lark until the day I happened to notice an ax in the corner of a cave.

I found its presence rather amusing, until I asked.

"That's for us to chop our way out of here," somberly answered the big brother of my best friend.

I don't remember whether it was before or after that incident, but a severe tornado hit the small town of Steen, Minn., just across the state border. Like the curious who would like to come to Grand Island, we drove up there on Sunday afternoon to see the devastation. I was awed by the empty foundation of one home, and the information that a family had survived by huddling under a table in the southwest corner of the basement.

Those incidents, obviously remain indelibly etched on my mind.

I lost some of the fear, but certainly not the respect, a few years later after we moved to the farm. My parents were gone one afternoon and a storm came up. I was so busy getting a newborn calf home from the pasture, herding the chickens into the henhouse after doors were blown shut, then helping my younger brother and sister mop up from the driving rain that actually came in around the house windows that I didn't realize what was happening. We'd been on the edge of a tornado that leveled a farm a quarter mile away and badly injured a boy another mile down the road.

The point is to illustrate the difference between then and now.

We had no warning system. You went to the cave when the weather looked threatening. Most didn't wait for the funnel cloud, because if you ever saw one you knew it might be too late to get there. But what you couldn't see because of driving rain you didn't recognize.

Grand Islanders are fortunate that we have a warning system today, and more than old wives' tales to protect us. The death toll here today might be in the hundreds were that not the case.

Sophisticated forecasting devices and communications systems make it possible to warn of threatening conditions, pinpoint specific problems and get the message out. And while we may have occasionally wondered if some didn't cry wolf too often, we're respectful enough so we know what to do when the real thing comes along.

Nothing could have saved Grand Island from the devastation Tuesday night, but that combination of factors saved hundreds of lives and serious injuries. The marvel, looking at the massive devastation and realizing the presence of ruptured gas mains and sputtering high power lines, is that the toll was nut much, much higher.

The incidents which date to my childhood were comparatively minor. But any inclination to ignore the message they brought is forever forgotten. The Grand Island tornado has brought to everyone here a profound feeling of respect for nature's power.

But it has also brought respect for the efforts which saved those lives. We may talk about the good old days, but our Weather Service and storm warning system is one area in which there is absolutely no comparison.