'I've never seen anything like it,' says former NWS chief
By Melanie Brandert and Pete Letheby
When Don Davis came to work at the National Weather Service office at the Grand Island airport on June 3, 1980, little did he know that he would track the most severe storm ever to hit Grand Island.
Seven tornadoes, including the massive F-4 that hit Bismark Road, Meves Bowl and South Locust, were produced from that 10-mile-wide super cell storm.
"I've never seen anything like it," he said.
Davis, then meteorologist in charge, and his team of four or five meteorologists started tracking a super cell storm that formed near Dannebrog about 8:30 p.m. on that hot, humid Tuesday.
A severe weather outlook had not been issued for Central Nebraska as it had for the northeast part of the state, Davis said.
"Norfolk should have gotten it instead of us or Columbus," he said.
The super cell was shaped like a spiral reminiscent of a hurricane on radar, Davis said. The storm was so tall that it extended beyond the weather service's radar scope of 60,000 feet. Weather service locations at Alliance and North Platte estimated the storm was 70,000 feet tall.
Davis told The Independent on June 4, 1980, that a tornado normally accompanies a fast-moving cold front, traveling southwest to northeast.
But the storms that occurred on June 3 were associated with stationary fronts that had hovered around Nebraska since May 29.
Because the super cell traveled only 5 mph to the southeast, the storm remained almost fixed over Grand Island, he said.
"I think what was the most unique about it was it was in the area for three hours from the time it came near Grand Island to the east from 9 p.m. to midnight," Davis said.
A tornado formed northwest of Grand Island, striking some farms. Davis recalled a farmer reported tornado damage.
Warning sirens first sounded about 9 p.m. in Grand Island, with the first tornado reported about 9:45 p.m.
Davis said tornadoes formed from the northern to southern parts of the storm cell, with none spawned from the west and southwestern sections. Tornadoes rotated around the super cell, he said.
"Even if it had not been tornadoes, the storm itself would have made a mess out of Grand Island," Davis said. "It would have been a whole lot of wind damage around town."
Ken Dewey, a meteorologist with the High Plains Climate Center in Lincoln, was part of a research team that came to Grand Island the day after the storms.
"It was a very unique storm," Dewey said. "Aspects of the Grand Island storm have never happened since. It was rotating and spinning off tornadoes.
"We think there were at least three or four other funnels that never touched down," he added.
Davis recalled that his crew could see the tornado that hit near the veterans hospital. The weather service office did not take a direct hit but lost a couple of windows. Some utility poles were knocked over at the airport as well, he said.
"I had people posted outside so we would know when to take cover," he said. "Looking out to the southwest, we could see in a flash of lightning a big funnel, then all of a sudden, power went out."
Because the storm literally stalled over Grand Island, meteorologists continued to reissue a tornado warning. A normal tornado warning usually lasts a half-hour to an hour, depending on how fast a tornado moves.
Davis said meteorologists could not spot tornadoes because radar indicated water droplets. When tornadoes would rotate, they could pick up the rotation of water droplets or pick up the hook echo from debris on the bottom of the tornado.
His staff also listened to the statewide radio network to listen for damage reports.
Davis was one of three meteorologists whose homes were damaged by the tornadoes. Davis' home at 4243 Texas Ave. in Capital Heights sustained $15,000 to $20,000 in damage.
All the windows were knocked out, and sections of his roof were torn off. Davis' patio roof was stuck on the side of his neighbor's house. A tornado destroyed houses west and south of Davis' home. One to the east sustained a little shingle damage.
"We had three roofs laying in our back yard the next morning, and they weren't ours," he said.
Davis did not learn his home had been hit until around midnight when he called home.
"One of the guys working out there tried to call home (and got) no answer," he said. "He was pretty shook up for a little bit."
After the storm left Grand Island, it turned east/southeast toward Phillips, then curved to the northeast before hitting Aurora, then weakened, Davis said. Some damage was reported in Hamilton County.
Davis estimated in 1980 that 3 to 4 inches of rain fell at the weather service office. While some local street flooding likely occurred, no flooding took place on the Wood River or Prairie or Silver creeks.
Dewey said the Grand Island storm changed traditional thinking about tornadoes.
For starters, the southwest corner is not the place to be during a twister. "You should go to the middle, at the lowest possible level," Dewey said.
Also, keep your windows closed, he added. Open windows can allow devastating winds to get into the house, circulate and cause much damage.
Dewey has been with the High Plains Climate Center for 26 years and remains active as a UNL professor, researcher and, occasionally, a storm chaser.
Davis retired from the weather service six years ago, but still works part time at the tower at the Central Nebraska Regional Airport taking weather observations.
He said the area has not received as much severe weather as it did in the 1970s and early 1980s. One of the worst storms he could recall in the 1990s occurred on March 13, 1990, when 11 tornadoes were reported in a three- to four-hour period from Kearney to David City.
"Back in the '70s, we might go a week and have severe weather every night," Davis said.