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Twenty-five Years
Looking back in wonder

Presentation to examine day that spawned several tornadoes in G.I.

By Harold Reutter

Twenty-five years has given Dr. Roger Wakimoto an even sharper perspective on the June 3, 1980, tornadoes.
"I still regard it as one of the most remarkable outbreaks of tornadoes I've ever seen," said Wakimoto, who works for the Department of Atomopsheric Science at UCLA..

He will will give a presentation, along with former meteorologist Don Davis and former Grand Island Dan Nietfeld, beginning at 7:30 p.m. June 2, at the Grand Theater.

Davis was on duty on the night of June 3, while Nietfeld, who graduated from Senior High in 1986, is now science and operations officer for the National Weather Service.

Wakimoto said he was surprised by the devastation he saw when he arrived in Grand Island about two days after the storms.

At the time, he was a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago, where he was a student under the late T. Theodore Fujita.

"I'd been a student of his for about three years," Wakimoto said.

Fujita had developed the "Fujita scale," which "really is a damage scale," said Wakimoto, who noted many people mistakenly believe the Fujita scale measures tornado wind speeds. (See accompanying story.)

He said that is a misconception shared even by many atmospheric scientists. Wakimoto said Fujita had developed his scale in the early 1970s, which means the scale was 10 years old or younger when the June 3, 1980, tornadoes hit Grand Island.

Scientists were fascinated by the Grand Island for several reasons, Wakimoto said. In 1980, the National Weather Service office was in Grand Island, at the Central Nebraska Regional Airport, instead of just north of Hastings.

As a result, radar images from the 1980 tornadoes were some of the best captured to that date, said Wakimoto.

He noted said he has always been impressed that meteorologist Don Davis and other meteorologists on duty kept working, determined to give people needed warnings, and taking radar images.

"A lot of people would have abandoned ship," Wakimoto said.

Davis said he and other meteorologists tilted the radar antenna up and left it there for the duration of the storm. The system then took pictures at regular intervals for the next two or three hours. Consequently, the images captured the storm's rotation.

Davis said the meteorologists focus on the supercell because there were no other severe storms in Central Nebraska to track that night.

Their main job on June 3 was periodically issuing extensions of the tornado warnings for Grand Island.

Between those warnings, Davis said, he and Dennis Ronne often sought shelter in a pit that contained the wiring for the radar and other equipment. Other meteorologists sheltered themselves underneath steel desks.

Every so often, various meteorologists went outside to act as "weather spotters" because it was easy to see the supercell.

Davis recalled personally going out the back door of the office and seeing a "big, black funnel cloud go down near the VA Medical Center. Sparks flew and the lights went off in Grand Island."

One man stopped at the National Weather Service office to advise the meteorologists to get in their cars and drive north. But Davis said that would have been one of the worst things they could have done. Trying to drive away in a car would have been much more dangerous than staying.

Still, that did not mean the meteorologists felt absolutely safe.

Davis recalled asking the National Weather Service Offices in Alliance, North Platte and Omaha to help out if their office was damaged, making it impossible to track the storm or issue warnings.

Davis said tornadoes dropped out of the periphery of the supercell, hitting northwest, north central and southeast Grand Island. But for some reason, no twisters dropped out of the northeast edge, which is where the National Weather Service Office was located in 1980.

Wakimoto said radar images captured of the Grand Island tornadoes were probably the best on record for the next 10 or even 15 years, when the National Weather Service started using Doppler radar. Storm chasers with portable radar have also been able to capture good images since 1980.

Another fascinating aspect of the June 3, 1980 tornadoes, is their rotation. Wakimoto said. Most tornadoes in the northern hemisphere spin counter-clockwise, or in what meteorologists call a "cyclonic" direction. The tendency to have cyclonic tornadoes in the northern hemisphere is influenced by the earth's rotation.

A few tornadoes in the northern hemisphere, though, turn clockwise or in a anticyclonic direction.

Wakimoto estimates only "a few percent" of tornadoes in the northern hemisphere spin clockwise in anticyclonic rotation.

Yet three of the of the seven tornadoes spawned by the supercell were anticyclonic.

Wakimoto said the Grand Island storm moved slowing because of the directions that winds were moving at various altitudes within the storm system. That made the supercell hang over Grand Island for almost three hours.

"If it had been a few miles one way or another, the storm system would have been over rural areas and caused less damage," Wakimoto said. "It was unfortunate that the system developed over a town."

For Davis, the fact the storm was nearly stationary, moving at only 5 miles per hour, was the most fascinating part of June 3. Typically, the jet stream at 20,000 or 30,000 feet will catch the storm system and move it through an area quickly.

In the spring, such movement is usually from the southwest to northeast because of the jet stream, Davis said. But sometimes, a ridge of high pressure off the Rocky Mountains will cause tornadoes in the Grand Island area and other parts of the Midwest to move from northwest to southeast. That usually does not happen until mid-summer.

But Davis said the supercell that spawned tornadoes on June 3, 1980, almost seemed as though it created its own weather system.

Wakimoto said he could have called the Grand Island tornadoes one of the most remarkable storms he'd seen.

That statement would not have been so impressive coming from a doctoral student with three years of study under Fujita.

But Wakimoto said the fact he can say the same thing after 25 years in the field carries a lot more weight.

He noted when he was asked to speak in Grand Island, he still had many of the artifacts, such as radar images, from the storm. He plans to share storm images and insights into what people learned from the storm.

"It's unusual for me to keep something for 25 years," Wakimoto said.

It was obvious Wakimoto still retains genuine interest in Grand Island. He was fascinated to learn about the recent beautification efforts along South Locust, saying that is something he hopes to see during his visit.

He also was interested in hearing about the recent heavy rains that produced flooding. Wakimoto said he will be speaking during the season when Central Nebraska's weather is the most unsettled.

"I suppose that's appropriate," he said.