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The North Bend Eagle


 

North Bend Nightmare:
Tornado threatened North Bend 30 years ago

by Nathan Arneal
Published 6/2/10

As dusk approached on May 29, 1980, North Bend residents were wrapping up an ordinary Thursday.

Dark clouds were gathering in the west, but there was no reason or warning to expect anything other than a typical late spring rainstorm.

Just after 8:30 that evening, Lowell and Ruth Johnson were at their home less than a mile west of North Bend on Highway 30, packing the car for a trip to Oklahoma the next day.

In the North Bend Central library, a group of people was watching a short film as part of a CPR training class.

Jim and Maxine Arneal were sitting down for a late steak dinner on their farm less than a mile north of town.

Lowell Johnson, ever the storm watcher, noticed the winds picking up but didn’t think much of it as he and Ruth continued to pack their car.
When he looked up and noticed boards and planks surfing the air currents high in the sky, the packing came to a sudden stop. He yelled for Ruth to head for the basement.

Just as the Johnsons were about to descend into the basement, they realized they didn’t have their dog, Spooker, with them. Not wanting to leave their pet at the mercy of the approaching storm, they began to calling out its name.

A tornado touched down on the Saunders County side of the Platte River, then worked its way across the river to the Johnson’s farm. By the time Spooker showed up safely, the twister had already done its damage to the grain bins and outbuildings. The Johnson’s never did make it to the basement.

The twister headed northeast, with the NBC high school building and another member of the Johnson family square in its sights.

Mark Johnson, Lowell and Ruth’s son, was teaching a CPR class in the school’s library.

As the class watched an instructional film, Johnson peeked out the library door and into the commons area. The large glass windows at the front of the school were rapidly pulsing in and out as torrents of water and wind battered them.

From somewhere in the building, they heard the crash of broken glass and the roar of the storm intensified. The class members dove for the floor of the library.

Then the lights went out. Darkness and an odd silence prevailed throughout the school.

Johnson and some of the others made their way down a darkened hallway to a door on the east side of the school. By then, it was calm outside, the silence broken only by the din of fire bells echoing through the halls of the school.

In the sky to the northeast, Johnson saw the monster that had just ripped off the roof of the NBC gym, destroyed the football scoreboard, and ravaged his parents’ farm.

Four blocks to the east, Lon Bohling was watching the funnel from his
front door on Main Street.

Moments earlier he had seen debris flying down 13th Street. With no basement in the house, he yelled to his wife Carol and his daughters to take cover in a hallway.

Knowing Lon wasn’t one to get to excited over weather, the sense of urgency in his voice told Carol this wasn’t a typical storm.

After a few minutes, the winds died down, and Lon ventured from the hallway and looked outside again. The tornado filled the sky to the north, while rays from the setting sun illuminated the silvery white funnel.

“It was pretty,” Bohling recalled 30 years later, “as pretty as a tornado can be, that is.”

As the tornado drifted north, away from town, North Bend’s alarm sirens began to sound.

Three-quarters of a mile north of town, Jim and Maxine’s dinner was interrupted by the pounding sound of hail pelting their house. Jim stepped out the front door and looked south at the whirling, twisting blackness hanging over North Bend. It was too dark to see any funnel cloud, but Jim had no doubt what he was looking at.

“If this isn’t a tornado, I’ve never seen one,” he told his wife.

After the Arneals entered their small basement through an outdoor entrance behind the house, Jim struggled to get the cellar door to latch shut. As the wind roared louder than a freight train outside, Maxine feared that she might see her husband sucked outside into the teeth of the storm as he fought to secure the door. Finally, she yelled for him to leave the door unlatched and crawl further into the basement.

The couple huddled in a back corner of the small 10 feet by 10 feet room. Through a small window at ground level, they could see trees bent nearly parallel to the ground.

Maxine recalls preparing for the worst.

“‘Well, this is it,’ I thought. I said, ‘I love you,’ and (Jim) said, ‘I love you, too’ and I just thought, ‘This is it.’”

About four miles northeast of the Arneal place, Robert Nesladek was watching the twister from his walkout basement on Foothill Road. The house, built just two years earlier, offered a panoramic view of the Platte valley from Fremont to Schuyler.

On this evening, the normally serene valley vista gave Nesladek a clear view of the funnel carving its path of destruction toward him.

With the 16-foot telephone cord stretched to the max, he was giving reports to the weather bureau as he peered across the valley. As the twister left the Arneals, it appeared to head straight for Nesladek. With the tornado bearing down on his home, he told the weather bureau he had to hang up.

Then the tornado made a turn due north, and Nesladek was able to breath a sigh of relief since it looked like his house would be spared. He watched the funnel as it approached Foothill Road about a half mile straight west of his house.

Then suddenly, with the funnel about 50 yards from Foothill Road, the threat was gone.

“The top third went up into the cloud and the bottom third dropped to the ground, and phhht, that was it,” Nesladek said.

The tornado of 1980 was over.

CLEAN UP

However, the work was just beginning.

After a nerve wracking 10 to 15 minutes, Jim Arneal emerged from his basement.

Maxine, still in the basement behind her husband, heard him utter a single four-letter expletive.

Irrigation pipe thrown about by the 1980 tornadoThe Arneal's irrigation pipe were tossed like toothpicks by the tornado and tangled into trees.

Trees that used to be in the front yard were now in the back yard. The few trees that were still standing had irrigation pipe and strips of metal twisted in their branches like bows. To Maxine’s surprise, the house was still standing. However, it was the only building to survive among the 16 structures that had stood on the farmstead just minuets earlier.

“We were numb,” Maxine Arneal said. “We were just numb. I was thankful we were alive, really.”

Before the Arneals were able to fully take stock of the situation, neighbors and friends had already begun to arrive.

A mile to the southwest, Mark Johnson arrived at his parents house. Grain bins on the farm were destroyed. The roof of the chicken house was gone, and the barn had been twisted off its foundation. Trees were scattered everywhere.

“It was pretty overwhelming,” Mark Johnson said. “I didn’t know how we were ever going to get all this straightened out. My folks must have been in shock or something. They were just working away as if it was no big deal.”

When the Arneals reentered their house, they found their uneaten steaks sitting right where they left them, now cold and peppered with shards of glass. Nearly every window in the house was broken out.

For the next five hours, the Arneals and several friends filled bushel basket after bushel basket with fragments of broken glass.

Maxine Arneal was glad they were able to make it outside to the basement door instead of being forced to seek shelter in bedroom hallway.

“They say the hall is a safe place to go, a place where there are no windows,” she said. “We would have been killed if had been there (in the hall) because the doors going into the bedroom were swung out and off the hinges.”

One of the bedroom doors was found in the dining room, at the other end of the hall.

Well after midnight, with most of the glass picked up and the windows boarded up, Jim and Maxine Arneal went to bed.

The next day volunteers arrived by the dozen, ready to help clean up. Thirty to 40 people worked all day long on the Johnson farm. More than 100 showed up at the Arneal farm.

“That was the overwhelming thing to me about the whole thing,” Mark Johnson said, “the good natured help that we had, the people that just showed up and took care of it basically. We’d still be straightening up if they hadn’t.”

News helicopters from Omaha TV stations 3, 6 and 7 landed in the Arneal’s pasture to cover the devastation.

The Arneal’s 100-foot chicken house was flipped onto its roof. The only trace of a brand new machine shed was twisted metal strips high in the trees. The tractors that were in the shed had been lifted up and slammed back down, their windows shattered.

It would take months to get the Johnson and Arneal farms back to working order. The entire roof of the NBC gym had to be replaced. For decades twisted metal and remnants of irrigation pipe could be seen in the treetops, serving as a reminder the fury nature unleashed on this area 30 years ago.

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