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Twenty-five Years
Life in disaster area left children in shock

Residents were lost, not knowing what to do

By Gretchen Fowler

Mike JakubowskiImagine living without electricity, water, clothing or food.
Imagine losing everything in a matter of minutes and not knowing where to go or what to do.

Hundreds of people who lived in Grand Island on June 3, 1980, don't have to imagine. They know, and they remember.

"You can just feel it in the air. There was just destruction coming," 33-year-old Stephanie Burton said, recalling the tornadoes that hit when she was 8 years old.

Burton said she'll always remember how green the leaves were on the trees and how everything behind them was black. She'll also never forget the destruction and devastation this natural phenomenon left behind and the images etched in her mind of the minutes and hours that followed.

After piling furniture on top of furniture to climb out of the basement, Burton realized that the house in which she lived with her grandparents, mother and siblings was sitting in the back yard. The power was out, and the smell of natural gas filled the air, which minutes before had swirled with a deadly violence.

"You could hear it raining, and all of a sudden it's so loud it's like a freight train," Burton said. "All you do is you blink and our house was in the back yard.

"I had no idea the rest of the town was gone," she said. "I just knew my house, and my block, was gone."

After spending the night at a neighbor's home that was intact, Burton peered back down into the area where she had lived and had taken shelter. Her clear, glass Snoopy piggy bank and the dollar bills that had been in it were floating in a mixture of water and gas that filled the exposed basement.

It was something familiar that caught her eye that day, in a situation that was like nothing she had ever experienced before.

"There was just such shock," Burton said. "The whole block was gone. It was just so weird. You didn't know what to do."

Though they weren't supposed to be doing it, people drove by constantly, Burton said. Her mom would yell at them through tears as she stood amidst the rubble on Claussen Road in northwest Grand Island, not knowing where to go or what to do next.

Claussen Avenue, in southeast Grand Island, was also affected by the force of the storms. Mike Jakubowski was 12 years old when he hovered there in the basement with his parents as the tornado roared through.

Much like Burton recalled her neighborhood after the storm, Jakubowski said one home would sit untouched while the next would be destroyed. The home in which he lived with his parents and older sister was one that was ripped apart.

Assessing the damage, and fearing for a while that he and his parents were the only ones in town who survived, Jakubowski found what used to be his corner bedroom. The walls and ceiling were gone, while his plastic model cars sat just as they had been. His fish tank was also unscathed, as were his pets who swam inside it.

Jakubowski said his sister was staying at a friend's house when the tornadoes made their way through town, and because the phones were out, there was no way to contact her. Residents were told to stay put in light of rescue and recovery efforts and to prevent looting, so it was a day and a half before the family learned that she was alive.

Like Burton, Jakubowski's family was able to purchase a trailer home from the government for a very small amount of money. The Jakubowskis lived in the trailer in the back yard while their home was rebuilt, and assistance and supplies came from neighbors and the American Red Cross.

"They were always there from day one," Jakubowski said of the Red Cross, which stepped in to fill the gap created by stores that were leveled or unable to reopen.

Red Cross volunteers brought food, clean water and clothing. Other water had to be boiled before it could be used, and use of the sewers was restricted.

Friends and neighbors borrowed and traded for things they needed in order to live and to begin cleaning up.

"Everybody just worked together real well," said Jakubowski, who now serves on the board for the local Red Cross. "You don't know where to go. You're just relying on everybody, you're so helpless."

Jakubowski remembers the curfews put in place across town and restrictions on driving due to downed power lines and other dangers. He said a lot of areas were blocked off and guarded by the military, and people, upon returning, had to have identification to gain access to their homes or what was left of them.

Just outside Grand Island, about a half-mile east of Airport and Monitor roads, Fred Behrle and his mother were also dealing with the tornadoes' aftermath.

Behrle, who was 13 at the time, said one of the grain bins on the property was shoved into a wall and picture window of the home. There was no power, and Behrle said there were helicopters flying over all the time.

"The hardest thing to get over was the loss of the barns and outbuildings and stuff," Behrle said. "It took a while for it to sink in that it was gone."

The family stayed for a while at Behrle's grandparents' home, about half a mile away, before buying a trailer home from the government.

Behrle's cousin repaired his mother's home, where Behrle and his wife lived after they were married. They live today in his grandparents' former home, where he and his mother had taken refuge after the storm.

"Basically, we didn't go to town," Behrle remembered. "It was one of those deals where you just stayed home. You couldn't get anywhere."

Similar to Jakubowski's situation, Behrle and his family relied on friends and neighbors to get what they needed.

"You have to rely on each other," Jakubowski said, "and the bottom line is, people are good."