June 1

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by Hummer Storm Chaser

Grand Island’s Tornado Hill

Bassett Nebraska pizza Hummer
Dark supercell Wood Lake Nebraska

The worst-case scenario for a tornado strike is an attack from a slow-moving supercell, after dark, according to veteran chaser Tim Marshall. Just such a monster storm hit Grand Island, Nebraska, 29 years ago June 3. Marshall and the other VORTEX2 researchers Saturday toured the remains of the Locust Street slabs that were left by four twisters that hit the town that night in 1980, from a total of seven twisters that spun down from the monstrous dark supercell, reaching a damage level of F4.

“It’s one thing to be in your cellar until itrsquo;s over,” he recalled. “But this was over, and over, and over. This giant meso was moving very slowly over the downtown and it would produce a tornado, and then the tornado would loop around the town, and would come back at you and hit you again.”

Lonnie Kopecky has lived in Grand Island most of his 64 years, and was nine years old when he saw his first tornado, in Nebraska, and lived about a block away from the fifth tornado, the strongest, that touched down in Grand Island in 1980. “We hid in the basement. I went up one time and looked out the window of the second floor and saw a tree coming at the house, so I went back down into the basement,” he recalled. “We listened to the local country station on FM to find out when we could get back out of the basement.” Kopecky recently became a trained spotter for the National Weather Service in Grand Island, and has developed a strong interest in tornado spotting. “Irsquo;m a pilot and have a mechanical engineering background, so the fluid dynamics part of the tornado is really interesting to me.”

Buildings demolished by the night of the storm were left in piles of rubble, which was pushed with snowplows to Old Potash highway on the edge of town, next to what is now Ryder Park, a quarter-mile square of baseball diamonds, tennis courts, and other public play areas. “They just covered the rubble with dirt and planted grass on it and made it a sled hill for the kids,” one nearby lifelong resident told us.

Three teenage babysitters were perched on top of the sled hill, and told us “We just call it Tornado Hill, I think there was a tornado a long time ago and they pushed everything here and built this.” Tornado Hill has no signs, no plaques commemorating the terrible event, and no hint that underneath the grass and frolicking children lie the remains of businesses from three decades ago.

The fictional movie “Night of the Twisters” was based on a fictional book about the Grand Island storm, which killed five people and injured 277 during its three-hour rampage.

The storm from “a long time ago” provided Marshall with his first experience as a tornado damage assessment expert, where he was hired by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to study how projectiles pierce structures. Marshall remembers studying bowling alleys and retirement homes, and motels. There was a building called the Regal Motel that had 60 24-foot long concrete beams for the structure of its roof. When the windows blew out of the motel, the roof elevated and then hit the flow of the tornado and were thrown into the air. “I got a picture of one beam after it had speared an 18-wheeler,” he said, adding that another beam was thrown like a javelin and skewered a house, penetrating all the way into the basement from the roof.

“Radar tells you what happens 100 meters high, you donrsquo;t know what the ground level inflow is. All the damage happens on the ground,” Marshall explained. His report was part of the information that the NRC used to build its Pantex nuclear weapons plant in Texas, a tornado-alley target back then of both the Soviet Union and of twisters. Today lessons learned from Grand Islandrsquo;s misfortune keep it safe.

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