Editor’s note: This is the sixth part of a series of stories looking at the 40th anniversary of the tornadoes that hit Grand Island on June 3, 1980.
GRAND ISLAND, Neb. — One Grand Island school said it teaches students about the tornadoes that struck 40 years ago each year.
Cedar Hollow first grade teacher Tami Wissing said she and Kayla Stutzman, a fellow first grade teacher, traditionally read “Night of the Twisters” to their first grade class every year. However, they were unable to this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Wissing said she has taught at Cedar Hollow for 10 years and has read “Night of the Twisters” every year in March or April, with the exception of this year. However, she said, former Cedar Hollow first grade teacher Doreen Grupe, who retired last school year, started reading the book to her students long before that.
“Every year, we read several chapter books, with ‘Night of the Twisters’ being one of the last ones that we read in first grade,” Wissing said. “We read it either at the beginning of every day or at the end of every day before they go. We try to leave them in a spot where they are hooked and want to come back the next day to hear what happened.”
Wissing said she gives her students some background on what Grand Island was like in 1980. She said the book starts out at Mormon Island, and she tries to show them pictures of where things used to be, start reading the story and “go from there.”
In past years, when Grupe taught first grade at Cedar Hollow, Wissing said Grupe would bring in news articles from the tornadoes to share with the first graders. She would also invite her friend, whose first night as a fireman was June 3, 1980, to share his story.
“I do think ‘Night of the Twisters’ is a favorite of the kids,” Wissing said.
“I think it is because it is something that actually happened here in Grand Island and their teacher was alive then. The story is said from a child’s perspective as far as what the little boy experienced that night and he wasn’t that much older than my students.”
Wissing said that as a 5-year-old at the time of the 1980 tornadoes, she is able to share her own story with her students.
“I always tell the kids that I can remember my parents taking me down to the basement and the sounds. It was so very loud,” she said. “I woke up in the basement alone the next morning and was afraid of what happened because I could not find my parents. My parents were outside trying to get the well working because we didn’t have electricity.”
While Wissing is able to share her own story with her students, Heather Callihan, technology integrationist for the Northwest Public Schools, is able to serve as a resource, as her home was destroyed by one of the seven tornadoes that hit Grand Island that night.
At the time, Callihan said, she was 4 years old and lived out in Capital Heights. She said that night, her dad had just come home from a bike ride and noticed it was “getting really dark” in the northwest sky.
Callihan said she remembers her parents saying, “It is looking bad” and “It is moving quickly.” The next thing she knew was that her parents took her, her 3-year-old sister and her 4-month-old brother down to the basement and covered them with mattresses.
“I remember hearing the glass breaking and my parents screaming because they knew that stuff was being destroyed above us,” she said. “We got rained on. I remember that because the whole top level of our house was gone.”
Callihan said her family was safe but had to be rescued from the basement as their house was leveled.
“I remember sitting in the front seat of my neighbor’s truck while he went back and got my siblings and my parents,” she said. “We all went over to this neighbor’s house and my dad and the neighbor went out and continued to rescue other people that were trapped in their basements in the area.”
After the storm, Callihan said she and her family lived at the Ramada Inn on Locust Street for a month before a trailer home was moved to the front yard of her property. They lived in the trailer for a year while a house was rebuilt on the property.
As a kid, Callihan said she remembers not being able to play in the front yard the whole summer because of the debris that remained.
“You never knew if there was glass or nails or any other debris that could hurt you,” she said. “So we were not allowed to play outside in our yard because of the debris around.”
Callihan said she is more fearful now as an adult when it comes to storms, but feels she is more prepared having lived through the “Night of the Twisters.” She said she makes sure to take IDs, purses and shoes to the basement when there is bad weather.
“One memory I have of the 1980 tornadoes is that we didn’t have shoes,” Callihan said. “We had to get shoes from neighbors or people because we went to the basement so quickly that we didn’t have shoes along with us.
“So we make sure we have those types of things, severe weather kits with us. Sometimes, it is not just a flashlight. It is those things you might need if you had to have any other destruction or you would be a victim of a disaster like that.”
Callihan said she hopes her story can help students realize that it is important to listen to meteorologists to stay safe from storms and not to be fearful of severe weather.
“I try to make sure I am not scaring kids when I tell them my story, but I want to make sure I give them that perspective of ‘following rules can keep you safe,’ ” she said.
Wissing said Cedar Hollow Principal Scott Mazour has talked with first graders about growing up during the time of the tornadoes, what it was like and what he remembers. She said she may reach out to Callihan in the future to share her story as well.