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Former meteorologist remembers Grand Island's 'Night of the Tornadoes'

Former meteorologist remembers Grand Island's 'Night of the Tornadoes'

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A calm Tuesday was unfolding the afternoon of June 3, 1980, in Grand Island. The Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma, predicted dry conditions for the day and only a 20% chance of thundershowers that night.

National Weather Service meteorologist Dennis Ronne was working at the Grand Island weather station that afternoon. After issuing the afternoon forecast, Ronne left work at 4 p.m. At the time, he was unaware a nightmare was heading out of the northwest toward the city.

Ronne stopped at home to pick up his youngest son, Brad, for a baseball game that evening. Dennis’ wife Carolyn was in California at the time, settling her mother’s estate.

Ronne's son, Brad Ronne, is now director of the vocal music department at Scottsbluff High School.

“During the game, winds started coming across the field and I knew something was developing northwest of town, something that wasn’t supposed to happen according to the forecast,” Ronne said. “After Brad had to leave, I told the coach it might be a good idea to cancel the game.”

The phone was ringing when they got home. Meteorologists on duty told Ronne storms were developing about 25 miles northwest of town. So Ronne headed back to the office to assist.

“On the way, I could see the storm and it wasn’t a tornado as far as I could tell,” he said. “It was just a huge, black ugly storm.”

The phone was ringing in the radar room when Ronne arrived. Controllers at the airport control tower, just to the north and three stories up, asked if the storm was a tornado.

So Ronne took another look and saw the huge, vertical walls of a supercell that was churning up debris from the bottom.

“I couldn’t see the tornado, but it was obvious,” he said. “I called the control tower and told them to get out now. And I told the guys in the radar room we had a tornado on the ground three or four miles to the west.”

Because the radar was so close to the storm, what’s called ground clutter was obscuring the precipitation in the storm. When they raised the ground antenna upward, a massive storm appeared. The first tornado warning for Grand Island was issued at 8:28 p.m.

The aftermath was later analyzed by Dr. Ted Fujita, who developed the Fujita tornado wind damage scale. He said the data revealed that when the tornado started to develop, it would move south, then north, then west and east. While the tornado wandered in different directions, it never moved from its position directly over Grand Island.

“Dr. Fujita said the core of the tornado kept getting bigger until it was 640 feet wide, the width of two football fields,” Ronne said. “The outside of the tornado was a mile wide.”

He said the huge weather system was present for days, but not spotted because it was forming in atmospheric layers where measurements weren’t being taken by weather balloon instruments.

“Another interesting point was that we had seven mother tornadoes form, which spawned as many as 100 smaller tornadoes,” Ronne said. “Of the seven, three of the mother tornadoes were rotating anticyclonic, which is very unusual in this hemisphere.”

He said by the time one of the tornadoes moved into Capital Heights in northwest Grand Island, where the Ronne family lived, the storm had narrowed down to less than a half-mile in width. Although it started to dissipate, much more damage was caused by downburst winds. F-3 scale winds were measured at 135 mph. A neighbor reported at least 11 inches of rain fell in a two-hour period.

During the entire four-hour period the tornadoes were on the ground, Ronne was at the weather station. He was receiving and passing along damage and tornado reports over NAWAS, the National Warning System.

Miraculously, there were only five fatalities that night. Two of the stories were especially telling.

“A young man had recently become engaged and was taking his fiancé to dinner when the sirens blared,” said Ronne’s wife Carolyn. “He pulled under the portico of the hotel on Locust Street and covered her. The portico came down, so she lived, but he died.”

Another 16-year-old girl was working at the mall, which was closed once the Weather Service issued the tornado warning.

Everyone went to the tornado shelter, but the girl wanted to get to her aunt’s home to help celebrate her birthday.

The aunt lived northwest of town, so the girl drove straight into the heart of the storm, which rolled her car into a ball. She was the first to die.

“We had to evacuate our own office three times that night,” Ronne said. “It was night so we couldn’t see outside. But when we tilted the radar, we saw a massive storm almost on top of us. So we went into the crawlspace because the building didn’t have an official shelter.”

The crawlspace was four concrete walls around a hole in the ground and a steel plate with two doors on the top.

“We were on generator power, which was about 30 yards from the building and the power lines ran through the crawlspace,” Ronne said. "We wondered if we’d be fried, but there wasn’t much else we could do.”

The last warning was issued at about 12:30 a.m., so Ronne headed home to check on his two younger sons. The trip usually took about 10 minutes, but that night it took 45 minutes because of downed trees, power lines and water over the roads.

He found the boys in the home’s shelter, sound asleep. Then the three of them went to pick up the oldest son from his job at a local restaurant.

When they got home, the phone was ringing. Instinctively, Kevin, the oldest son, picked up and didn’t say hello, he just said “We’re OK, Mom.”

Carolyn, still in California, had sensed something was wrong at home. She called and let the phone ring until someone picked up. It took about 25 minutes, but she learned the family was all right.

“We brought my mom’s car and drove back home from California,” Carolyn said. “As we started coming into Grand Island, I started crying from all the devastation. It was overwhelming.”

President Jimmy Carter authorized FEMA to transport emergency housing to Grand Island for those displaced by damage to almost 2,100 homes, causing $140 million in property damage.

The president also flew into the city about two days later to survey the damage. Ronne and several other residents were honored by the National Weather Service for their work helping to keep the community safe during and after the storms.

Ronne called it the worst night of his career. Forty years later and now retired from almost 38 years of service, both Dennis and Carolyn remember the night that had such a large impact on so many friends and colleagues.

Moving back to Scottsbluff 21 years ago, Ronne helped oversee the final days of the local weather office before operations were moved to Cheyenne.

“Although I’m retired, I still get into the weather maps online,” Ronne said. “If it looks like it’s going to get bad and I’m not sure that what I’m getting from Cheyenne is right, I’ll pull up the maps to see what I can figure out.”

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