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Twenty Years
The aftermath: rebuilding

By Tracy Overstreet
The Independent

When seven tornadoes converged on Grand Island the night of June 3, 1980, no one immediately knew for certain the extent of the power they brought.

But over the next three weeks, as cleanup and power-line rebuilding took place, and over the next year, as many homes and businesses were reconstructed, one thing became clear. The tornadoes brought both the power of destruction and the power of unity.

"It brought our neighborhood and our town together," said Gordie Scarborough, 833 E. Bismark Road.

His home was completely destroyed while he was in Lincoln. He heard about the storm on television and then got a phone call from his adult son.

"He said, 'Dad, you might want to come home. Your house is pretty much laying in the back yard,'" Scarborough recalled.

"And it was," he said. "It looked like a war zone."

The tornadoes converged upon Grand Island beginning at 8:45 p.m. Six tornadoes spun through the city, mostly taking turns dealing out destruction. However, as many as three in northwest Grand Island shared time on the ground.

The final tornado hit southeast of Grand Island proper and ended its toll at 11:30 p.m.

Five people were killed, 36 were hospitalized and another 266 suffered minor injuries.

City Building Director Craig Lewis, who was working for a private contractor at the time, said 442 homes were destroyed, 474 homes were badly damaged and 107 businesses were destroyed or damaged. Many of those businesses were along South Locust.

"We went from a three-man crew to three separate crews," Lewis said of rebuilding efforts. "It was sun-up to sun-down work."

But before the rebuilding was the cleanup.

"That very day, we started to clean up the mess and sort stuff," Scarborough said.

City crews also jumped to the task of cleanup.

"The first problem was getting the debris off the street to get rescue personnel through," said Wayne Bennett, who was public works director then.

Within the first 24 hours, he said, loaders were run through city streets to plow away the debris and make the streets passable.

Then volunteers were organized to cut up fallen trees and begin the arduous task of picking up and hauling debris to three or four in-town collection sites. Bennett said there were lots of volunteers.

Scarborough said the debris was cleared in short order at his house -- thanks, in part, to the helping hands from Lincoln fraternities rushing his son.

He attempted to salvage pictures, memory books and furniture that still looked relatively good. He put it in storage until his house could be rebuilt.

Scarborough said it was his attempt to have "a little bit of past life to build the future."

But when reality, instead of anxiety and trauma, set in months later, there wasn't much salvageable, he said. He realized that what looked relatively good was relative to complete destruction.

Much of what Scarborough initially decided to salvage was coated with the black, sticky residue spat from the tornadoes.

"Eleven months later, it was still junk," Scarborough chuckled.

His decision to rebuild wasn't hard to make.

"It was a fleeting thought not to rebuild," Scarborough said.

As owner of a roofing company, he decided to repair and seal up the main floor with roofing material to keep any water out in preparation of rebuilding.

That preventative step actually opened a new experience for Scarborough as the stark-white sealed floor became a makeshift speakers platform for President Jimmy Carter when he toured Grand Island one week after the tornadoes hit.

Scarborough said the impromptu stop the president decided to make to talk to the people gathered along Bismark made the security detail nervous because the area had not been secured.

As Carter addressed the crowd, Scarborough said, he stood behind and talked with Secret Service agents. When the president was done speaking, he turned and a Secret Service agent introduced Scarborough to the president.

When he rebuilt his house, Scarborough had an engraved brick placed in the northeast corner commemorating the presidential visit.

But the brick also commemorates an incredible community effort.

Bennett said the debris at the collection sites was burned and then taken to form Tornado Hill near the Sorensen softball fields. It remains as a reminder of the powerful storm.

City electrical engineer Bob Ranard has his own memories of the storm's power, which snapped countless utility poles, literally leaving Grand Island in the dark.

"We had the ability to generate power but no ability to distribute it," he said.

Ranard said it took 200 workers about three weeks to repair and restore electricity to the entire community.

Nebraska Public Power District spokesman Dave Simon said the electric distribution system surrounding homes at Kuester's Lake was entirely rebuilt by district crews.

Hall County Supervisor Bud Jeffries, 28 Kuester Lake, said that, when the power went, so did the area's ability to pump water from their individual wells. The lake became the place to wash up, and Salvation Army trucks came daily to ensure "nobody went hungry."

"It was really an inconvenience," Jeffries said, noting that temps soared in the weeks after the tornadoes and there was no air conditioning.

"But you can survive," he said. "Life just went on really."

"It was a one-day-at-a-time sort of a thing," said then KMMJ radio reporter Richard Dillman, 1824 N. Lafayette.

"You saw some places where they never started rebuilding," he said. "But everybody else Š homes just started popping up."

Scarborough said it was almost as if people stopped living their lives in order to put their lives back together. People shared their lives a little more and relied on each other.

"It was a positive experience but a once-in-a-lifetime" experience, he said.

Scarborough said the cleanup and rebuilding phase showed strengths in numbers and pulled neighborhoods and the city closely together. He helped organize a one-year anniversary of the tornado effort at Stuhr Museum.

"It was a great learning experience," he said, reflecting on the tornadoes trials. "But I've already learned it, so I don't want to learn it again."