Nebraska town hit by four tornadoes

Tuesday, June 24, 2003

DESHLER, Neb. -- The day after tornadoes pounded this town and killed one person, Russ Wassom trudged through the carnage of what used to be his grain bins.

"I wish I had more insurance," Wassom said Monday as debris from the storms lay strewn for miles behind him on the rolling farmland.

Storms spawned seven twisters in the state, dropped up to a foot of rain in nearby Hebron and produced record hail the size of cantaloupes in Aurora.

The tornadoes destroyed homes and businesses in Deshler. The hail left craters in yards and large holes in the roofs of homes in Aurora.

The person killed by one of the tornadoes was identified as Paul Reinert, 47, of Deshler. He was in a garage workshop off his home when it was flattened by a tornado. Reinert was found buried underneath the debris, Mayor Alan Holle said.

He was Nebraska's first tornado fatality since 1988, when a mother and daughter died in Gretna, outside Omaha.

At least 100 homes and 25 businesses were severely damaged in Deshler. Four homes on the southwestern edge of town were leveled to their foundations.

Four tornadoes struck in and around Deshler, a town of about 900 people near the Kansas border, starting at 6:40 p.m. Sunday and staying in the area for up to an hour.

Warning sirens silenced

Holle said that warning sirens began sounding about 30 minutes before the tornadoes hit, but the town then lost power and they fell silent about 10 minutes before the first twister touched down.

Wassom said he was at his farm several miles west of Deshler with his wife and 5-year-old son when the tornadoes hit. They spent several hours in the basement of their home as a tornado he described a half-mile wide lingered in the area.

"It would go one way and turn around and come back -- like it didn't know which way it wanted to go," he said.

Seven people were injured in Deshler. Most were cut from flying debris, said Malisa Sittler with Thayer County Health Services.

Gov. Mike Johanns toured the tornado damage in Deshler and declared the county a disaster area.

"It's unbelievable," Johanns sad. "There is nothing that hasn't been damaged" in the southwest section of Deshler.

Much of the town remained without electricity and water Monday. Phone circuits also were overloaded.

Officials were doing house-to-house inspections before restoring utility service.

Even though downed power lines and twisted debris were strewn about town, scores of local residents strolled and drove through the streets to survey the damage.

"Where do you start cleaning this up?" said one man as he walked near the 50-foot silos of the Deshler Grain and Feed Co., which were twisted and dented -- but still standing.

The metal awning of The Deshler Rustler newspaper hung by its anchors, blocking the building's front door.

"I don't think we'll publish this week," said 85-year-old Florence Struve, who works as a receptionist and proofreader at the weekly newspaper, which publishes each Wednesday.

The Nebraska State Patrol sealed off the community early Monday, allowing in only residents, rescue and relief workers and journalists.

Johanns authorized the use of a National Guard helicopter out of Lincoln to help save people stranded by flooding in the area. It was used to pluck a 64-year-old man from the roof of his home near Gilead, which was surrounded by waist-high water.

A rescue team from Hebron used a personal watercraft to reach a woman and at least two children stranded on top of a car in a street in Hubbell, on the Kansas border, said Chris Peterson, the governor's spokesman.

Authorities also knew of at least seven people trapped in their homes because of flooding in Hubbell.

There were preliminary reports of up to 12 inches of rain in Hebron, about 10 miles east of Deshler. Radar indicated six to 13 inches of rain throughout Thayer County, said Jared Guyer, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Hastings.

U.S. Highway 81 just south of Hebron was closed because floodwaters were running over the road along the Little Blue River. A 30-mile stretch of Nebraska Highway 8 from Chester to Fairbury also was closed because of flooding on Rose Creek and other streams. Creeks along other highways in the area were out of the banks and filling nearby farm fields.

At least one hail stone that fell in Aurora on Sunday night was the largest ever recorded in Nebraska, and one of the largest recorded in the United States.

The hail was the size of a cantaloupe, measuring 6.5 inches across with a circumference of 17 3/8 inches fell Sunday night in Aurora, said Ryan McCammon, a weather service meteorologist in Hastings.

For comparison, that is two inches wider than a softball.

The weather service sent a crew to Aurora on Monday to confirm the size, which is only one-eighth of an inch smaller than the national record set in 1970 in Coffeyville, Kansas.

Other stones measuring 4.5 inches across also were found in the city.

One man in Aurora reported a hail stone caused a hole in the roof of his home that was large enough for him to crawl through, the weather service reported.

Deshler was filled with the roar of chain saws, generators and heavy equipment clearing debris Monday. Less than a block away from the area of heaviest damage, a wooden barrel planted with petunias sat unscathed.

Only one story remained of the two-and-a-half-story octagonal agricultural hall at the Thayer County Fairgrounds, a local historical place that was recently renovated.

The town's lumber yard was destroyed, a broom factory was severely damaged and Reinke Manufacturing's irrigation equipment plant west of town was damaged.

A tornado also damaged buildings in Byron, about seven miles south of Deshler and 11 miles to the southeast in Chester.

Tyler Fangmeyer used a chain saw to clear away the tree limbs that seemingly embraced his small, one-story house in Deshler.

The shingles on his house looked as if they had been removed with a giant putty knife and all the windows of the home were broken.

"The TV's in the kitchen," he said. "That's not where it started out."

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