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Twenty Years
Tornado Hill most visible reminder of June 3, 1980

By Harold Reutter
The Independent

Twenty years later, Tornado Hill is the most visible reminder of the devastating twisters that tore portions of Grand Island apart on June 3, 1980.

Tornado Hill in Ryder Park covers the debris left in the wake of the seven tornadoes that rampaged through town. But over the course of two decades, some of the details surrounding Tornado Hill's creation have faded from memory.

Former Public Works Director Wayne Bennett recalled that Tornado Hill was an invention born of necessity as much as inspiration.

"At the time, the landfill we had was approaching being full," Bennett said. "We were concerned about getting it filled up prior to the time we had the new one ready."

The landfill in 1980 was on city-leased land east of Grand Island. A contractor called Community Refuse Disposal operated it for the city.

Bennett cannot recall, though, whether the site for the current landfill had already been obtained or whether the search was still under way for a replacement.

With landfill space in short supply, Bennett said, city officials decided to take the refuse from the tornadoes and create a sledding hill in Ryder Park.

That was a several-step process, however.

The first step was simply cleaning up destroyed homes, businesses and trees. Bennett said numerous contractors were hired to pick up the debris that homeowners had dragged to the curbside.

Darren Hellbusch, project manager for Hooker Brothers, remembers that job well. He had been working on a highway project, but that assignment was abandoned with the blessing of state officials so he could help with the cleanup.

"They figured that was more important," Hellbusch said.

He cleaned up debris from the South Locust area. He recalled encountering one homeowner whose house had been destroyed. That man had his head in his hands.

"He'd just made his last house payment," Hellbusch said. Because his insurance payments were rolled into his house payments, the man was wondering whether his house was actually insured.

"Everybody had a story," Hellbusch said of the people he met while helping with the cleanup.

One particular incident that stands out in Hellbusch's memory was a person finding a woman's wedding ring. She'd been washing dishes and laid her ring on the counter when the sirens sounded and she went down to the basement.

"She just lost it," Hellbusch said of the woman's emotional reaction when the ring was returned.

Another striking memory is that liquor bottles were still standing on the shelves of a South Locust liquor store even though the walls of the building had been flattened, he said.

An especially strong memory was the unity in town following the tornadoes and the real dedication to rebuilding.

"People who lost all that they possessed in the world all worked together," he said.

Linda Vlach and her husband, R.J., have a contracting business that also was used for the cleanup operations in 1980. Their business is on Schimmer Drive.

Mrs. Vlach can recall that the National Guard sealed off Grand Island. That created problems when she and her husband tried to go into town to tell people they had equipment to help with the cleanup.

"The National Guard wouldn't let us in," she said. Fortunately, the guardsmen relented, and they were able to get a pass to cross the checkpoints.

Because of the electrical outage in Grand Island, Mrs. Vlach recalled, she and her husband initially wondered, "Can we get gas?"

That, too, was a short-lived worry because electricity was restored to a portion of town in short order.

Once the contractors had filled their trucks, they hauled the debris to several designated dump sites. Twenty years later, Bennett cannot recall where all those dump sites were. He does know that one of them was at Fonner Park.

Mrs. Vlach can recall seeing items at the Fonner Park dump site that she thought people would have wanted to save. "There were personal belongings in there," she said.

She thinks things were picked up so fast that people did not have time to recover everything before it was carted away.

Eventually, the debris was burned. The ashes then were hauled to Ryder Park to create Tornado Hill.

Hellbusch had returned to the highway job by then, but he said he's talked to Rod Hooker about that part of the process. Hellbusch said that, when the smoldering ashes were hauled in trucks, they often started smoldering brighter or even catching fire a little bit.

"The guys weren't too happy with that," he said. The problem was solved by dumping the ashes out, then covering them with dirt.

Neither Bennett nor Parks and Recreation Director Steve Paustian can recall a designer for Tornado Hill. They both thought the dirt for the hill came from an adjacent detention cell.

Hellbusch said others remember the dirt coming from a depression scooped out from the site of the hill itself. Ashes were dumped into the depression and eventually formed a mound. Dirt was scooped up along the sides until it was even with the ashes.

Then more ashes were dumped, creating another level to be covered by dirt. That kept on until the entire hill was created.

"It's kind of how they do a landfill," Hellbusch said.

Paustian said the original Tornado Hill was not as big as it is now. It was eventually redone to provide 8 feet of cover, which replaced a much thinner original cover layer.

Paustian estimated the original hill was perhaps "three quarters of the mass it is now."

The primary purpose of Tornado Hill is sledding. However, Paustian said cross country teams have used the hill for training runs. At one time, the hill was used for cross country meets, although it has been several years since it was used for that purpose.

The official name for the edifice is not actually Tornado Hill, Paustian said. The city sponsored a contest for elementary school students to name the mound. He said city officials chose and then merged names submitted by two students.

One name was Fun-nel to denote the fact that the hill was created in part by the terrible power of tornado funnels but that the hill would also be a "fun" place for kids to sled.

Paustian could not remember the second name chosen, but he didn't argue with the suggestion that it was Memory Mountain in honor of the mementos from people's homes that ended up buried there. Nor did he dispute the suggestion that the fused name was Memory Fun-nel Mountain.

But he doesn't endorse those suggestions, either.

Paustian does know that people don't use the official name, whatever it may be. To all the locals, the mound is Tornado Hill.

Paustian said he often meets newcomers to Grand Island who are visiting Ryder Park. When that happens, he's frequently questioned about the hill. It does, after all, stick out in pancake-flat Grand Island.

When Paustian explains the history of Tornado Hill, he said, newcomers are "very much surprised by what's there." But it only takes a little reflection for them to decide, "It was a pretty good idea."

In the early years, all Paustian had to do was to explain that the hill covers tornado debris, and even newcomers would know that he was talking about the infamous 1980 tornadoes. They knew that story.

But in more recent years, Paustian has more and more had to recount not only the story of Tornado Hill but the story of the 1980 tornadoes themselves.

As the decades have passed, not only the details but also the big story is fading for some people.