Wayne, Neb., busy rebuilding after $50M battering by fierce tornado in October - Omaha.com
Published Saturday, November 23, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 11:07 am
Wayne, Neb., busy rebuilding after $50M battering by fierce tornado in October

Photo slideshow: Wayne, Neb., recovery

* * *

WAYNE, Neb. — ­Maybe it's because he's a builder.

Or because it could have been much worse.

But Len Dickinson didn't miss a beat this week as he stood amid the freshly ­collapsed framework of his company's new manufacturing buildings.

Time to rebuild — again.

In a town that sustained more than $50 million in damage from an EF4-strength tornado, few are quitting.

Certainly not Dickinson, even though, for a second time, the wind has dealt a blow to his production facilities.

Six weeks ago, the tornado demolished the Sand Creek Post & Beam's manufacturing buildings.

This past week, a day after crews had finished framing the replacement buildings, a fresh round of high winds knocked down both of them.

“A day at a time,” Dickinson said.

The Oct. 4 tornado that struck Wayne was unusual for its late-season power. It was only the sixth EF4 or stronger tornado to occur in the United States in October since 1950, according to the National Weather Service.

An EF4 tornado has winds up to 200 mph.

On Sunday, an even more stunning round of tornadoes demolished homes in Illinois, Indiana and elsewhere in the Midwest. At least eight people were killed.

“I feel for those people,” said Mark Hanson, whose rural Wayne home was among those destroyed in October. “We see those pictures, and we know what they're going through.”

Wayne-area residents consider themselves lucky.

Photo slideshow: Wayne, Neb., tornado. * * *

Although the tornado grew to more than a mile wide and was on the ground for 19 miles, it missed most of the town of 5,600 people.

No one was killed. No neighborhoods were hit. Wayne State College was spared, as was the downtown core.

Although much of the industrial park was leveled, the tornado came through about 5:30 p.m. on a Friday, after most workers had gone home.

Fifteen people were hurt. The one person who was critically injured, Wayne State College executive John Dunning, is recovering at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital in Lincoln.

Nancy Braden, city finance director, said the tornado has brought the town together.

“This has unified the community in a lot of ways,” Braden said. “There has been an economic impact, but everyone wants to see us move ahead.”

About 20 businesses were damaged or destroyed, as were a similar number of mostly rural homes. For Nebraska native Dickinson, there was no question about rebuilding.

“Wayne is a wonderful place to have a business,” Dickinson said. He cited the value of the educated workforce provided by students at Wayne State and the can-do work ethic of the town's agricultural and German heritage.

“This is a tough town. Everybody is focused,” he said.

The city expects to learn in the week ahead if the tornado will deal a second blow to the local economy. A major employer whose facilities were destroyed will announce whether it will rebuild in Wayne.

Pacific Coast Feather Co. employs about 140 people, generating a payroll of about $5.5 million, said Mayor Ken Chamberlain.

“It would be devastating — it's something of an unknown how it would affect Wayne if they leave,” Chamberlain said.

The city is offering no-interest loans to Pacific Coast and other employers damaged by the tornado, Chamberlain said. The money for the loans is generated locally, through a sales tax.

Additionally, Wayne is annexing the Pacific Coast site so that it can offer the company tax incentives, Chamberlain said.

If Pacific Coast stays, he said, it will be able channel the money it would pay in taxes to its cost of recovery.

Otherwise, the economic impact of the tornado has been somewhat muted by insurance payouts and the fact that most affected employees continue to earn a paycheck.

Like other employers, Dickinson has kept the approximately 40 people employed at his plant on the payroll.

“Nobody lost an hour of pay,” he said. “In fact, people are working more.”

Bill Shanks, distribution center manager for Van Diest Supply Co., said workers have forged ahead and done whatever is required to recover. The day after the tornado, workers removed 28 semitrailer loads of supplies from a damaged warehouse.

“We did not lose a dime of inventory,” he said.

Upon seeing the rubble that had been the industrial park, Dickinson said his first thought was, “Everyone is dead.” Instead, he said, “everyone found a place to hide.”

Dunning and fellow Wayne State executive Michael Anderson had reached the outskirts of Wayne on their drive home from Chicago when they crossed paths with the tornado.

As boards, glass shards and other debris flew toward them at about 170 mph, the windows of their pickup truck exploded and Dunning fought to pull the truck to the side of the road.

Anderson jumped out of the moving truck, and Dunning followed as quickly as possible behind him. Both men threw themselves down the 12-foot embankment on the side of the road.

Through a twist of fate, a Dumpster tumbling down the ditch missed Anderson but slammed into Dunning.

Anderson is still recovering from a broken rib in his back, a deep cut that severed a nerve to a finger and a persistent case of pneumonia from dirt carried by the tornadic winds.

“We are both incredibly lucky to be alive,” Anderson said.

While much of the debris has been removed and reconstruction is underway, the signs of the tornado remain strewn along its path: scattered piles of debris, fractured trees, tufts of insulation.

At the NAPA parts store, construction sheeting flaps in the wind, a steel beam twists from the ceiling, and damaged inventory is scattered across the store's cement floor.

Nebraska is seeking federal disaster aid to help government agencies with recovery.

The Wayne airport took a direct hit, so the National Weather Service sensors stationed there were lost. Residents miss getting an accurate record of their town's weather.

The town's wells drew from a pristine aquifer and never required chlorination. However, the tornado caused a breach somewhere in the system and, as a result, the city has to chlorinate the water.

Families that lost homes are moving forward. Hanson, principal at the Wayne Junior-Senior High School, and his wife, Connie, plan to rebuild. Their new home might be in town. The tornado also destroyed the trees, robbing their land of much of its allure.

Wednesday, birds flitted in and out of the ripped-open house. All that is left is a carpeted floor studded with shards of glass.

Hanson said the aftermath has at times been depressing. The encouragement of others has helped.

“We're at that turning point where we are looking toward the future, instead of looking back,” he said. “That's a good feeling.”

Contact the writer: Nancy Gaarder

nancy.gaarder@owh.com    |   402-444-1102    |  

Nancy writes about weather, including a blog, Nancy's Almanac. She enjoys explaining the science behind weather and making weather stories relevant in daily life.

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