GRAND ISLAND — One person died in a collision with a tree and a number of Central Nebraska residents were without power and had tree debris in their yards following an early morning thunderstorm Wednesday that generated heavy rain, hail and winds that peaked at 87 mph.
Hall County Sheriff’s Department Chief Deputy Jim Castleberry said the motor vehicle fatality was a result of the thunderstorm.
“It was a single vehicle and single occupant who was eastbound on Airport Road near Burwick,” Castleberry said. “A tree had fallen across the road and was arched in such a way that the driver was not able to see the tree until the very last second and ended up driving into the side of the tree.”
He said the Sheriff’s Department received the call about the accident at 3:36 a.m.
The strong winds caused the Grand Island Police Department to tell people to stay home after the storm because of dangerous situations with downed trees and power lines.
Capt. Jim Duering of the Grand Island Police Department said the storm debris was first cleared from the main thoroughfares in the city and crews were busy Wednesday morning getting to the many fallen trees and limbs that were blocking residential streets.
“The biggest (concern) for us right now are the accidents,” Duering said. ”People running into downed objects or running into other cars avoiding downed objects.
“We still have a lot of stop lights that are inoperable or just flashing that has caused us some accidents,” he said.
Grand Island/Hall County Emergency Management said the Grand Island Emergency Center received nearly 300 storm-related calls, including traffic hazards, alarms, power outages and fire concerns from sparking electricity.
Restoring city power
Grand Island Utilities Director Tim Luchsinger said he figured about 10,000 customers out of about 26,000 — more than one-third of the city’s total utilities customers — lost power due to the storm. The outages were scattered all across the city and were not confined to a specific area.
“This is probably one of the worst that I’ve seen in over 30 years here at the city. It was so widespread,” Luchsinger said. “Most of it was actual trees falling down on lines. We had a few incidents with trampolines out blowing around, too.”
He said the Utilities Department has “dozens of pages” of phone calls from utilities customers calling in to report power outages. The department is working through those to ensure everyone who reported a power outage has had their power restored.
Most of the power was back up, Luchsinger said, by mid-morning, but crews had been out since 3 a.m. working to get all meters back on.
The police reported about 9 a.m. that most traffic lights were functioning normally. They were advising motorists that traffic lights that were not operational were to be treated as a four-way stop.
Duering said after the storm, “At one point in time there were no streets that were not affected in some shape, way or form by downed trees, tree limbs, stop lights or traffic accidents.”
Fire, rescue calls
Scott Kuehl, a shift commander with the Grand Island Fire Department, said dispatch was inundated with calls for “unknown fires.”
“Most of them were related to power lines that were blown down or taken down by falling trees or wind,” Kuehl said. “There were some small, minor fires that started in trees because of power lines. There were no fires that were actively burning anyone’s houses. We had a lot of false alarms that were triggered by lightning that we had to take care of.”
He said that early Wednesday morning, the Fire Department received a number of calls from people needing oxygen due to medical reasons after they lost power.
“They were worried that their oxygen generator machine would not keep up and they would run out of oxygen,” Kuehl said. “We transported probably four or five people who were in that situation.”
Additionally, he said the Fire Department had to perform a minor water rescue after a car got stuck in the Eddy Street underpass.
“We had to have a firetruck crew walk down in chest-deep water to a car that was partially submerged,” he said. “When they were down there, they found another car that was 99% submerged. They did a quick check to make sure no one was in there and there was no one in there.”
Surprise for homeowner
Grand Island resident Connie Swanson said a tree was uprooted at her home in south Grand Island due to the storm Wednesday morning, causing damage to her fence and her neighbor’s house.
“I didn’t actually hear it fall,” Swanson said. “It must have been about 6:30 a.m. (Wednesday) when I got up, let my dogs out and opened my back door to see my tree was laying down. It actually fell on the neighbor to the south’s house. But it pretty much was the top of it, so hopefully it (damage) is not too bad.”
She estimated the uprooted portion of the tree to be 12 to 15 feet tall.
“I will have to hire a company to clear out the tree. I made several calls and they are busy because there are so many trees down everywhere,” Swanson said. “What I am hoping to do is to be able to at least get the part of the tree that is on the neighbor’s house off. The rest of it I’ll just have to be patient with.”
Stuhr Museum response
At Stuhr Museum, Executive Director Joe Black said grounds crews worked to clear tree debris from the museum grounds starting Wednesday morning.
“What we are seeing is a lot of wind-generated damage — which is not a huge surprise — a lot of limbs, branches and moving up to split trunks and large trees pushed over with their roots up in the air,” Black said. “Luckily, we have not had any major structural damage associated with those falls. I think we have one tree that is leaning up against a maintenance building that we will have to get some assistance with.”
While the storm took the museum staff by surprise Wednesday, he said it will quickly rebound from it. They plan to plant some new trees to replace the damaged ones.
“Of course, we cannot immediately replace a huge, 40- to 50-year-old tree and the wonderful shade it provided, but we do plant a number of trees every year to get us thinking about the future,” Black said. “We also plant a variety of those trees for interest and for safety because of the emerald ash borer or whatever it is that comes along that will decimate a certain tree. We don’t want that to get the whole grounds.”
Power loss extensive
Outside of Grand Island, Grand Island/Hall County Emergency Management said that the village of Cairo was without power until about 6 a.m. LeAnn Doose, public relations director for Southern Public Power District, said the power district received a number of reports in Adams and Hall counties.
“When the initial storm struck, we initially had 3,800 meters out of service,” Doose said. “Some of the towns that were affected are Ayr, Cairo, Doniphan, Alda and people in rural areas who were affected as well. We still have crews that are working to restore folks. We have deployed some of our linemen from other areas such as Holdrege, Franklin and Central City to come into this area to up our manpower to speed that process up for people who are affected.”
As of 10:45, 2,700 meters were still without power. Doose was uncertain when power would be restored to all SPPD customers.