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Windstorm damages Burwell’s rodeo grounds

A strong windstorm blew through Garfield County, Nebraska, the afternoon of May 12, bringing damage to the rodeo grounds in Burwell, the home of Nebraska’s Big Rodeo.

Winds up to 110 mph damaged the historic north grandstand, ticket office and multiple 4-H buildings.

Damage is estimated at a minimum of $1 million, said Jess Helgoth, chairman of the rodeo committee.



The north grandstands, which were built in July of 1922, have withstood numerous windstorms, including a bad one in 2007, and a tornado in the 1980s. After the 2007 windstorm, the far west end of the north grandstands were rebuilt with square metal tubings bolted to anchors in the ground. The wind pulled 12 of those anchors out of the ground and laid them on the bleachers, and pulled another four out of the ground and set them back in the same holes, Helgoth said.

Anchors in the ground, built in 2007 after windstorm damage, are lifted out and laid on the bleachers after the windstorm. Photo courtesy NBR Facebook page.

“The National Weather Service representative was shocked” at the damage, he said.



The north grandstands, which were made of wood, are on the Nebraska Historical Register and, when replaced, need to be replaced with the same look as they had previously.

The historic wooden north grandstands at the Burwell rodeo grounds were built in 1922. After damage from a windstorm on May 12, they will be rebuilt with steel with the same look as the originals. Photo courtesy Nebraska’s Big Rodeo Facebook page

The committee plans on replacing them with the same appearance, but by doing so, “you open up that scenario that (windstorm damage) could happen again,” Helgoth said, due to the fact that summer windstorms are more likely to blow in from the south, into the face of the grandstands, and lift the roof. Helgoth said this winter, 70 mph north winds didn’t damage the grandstands, because they blew in onto the back of them.

“We really want to basically go back in there and make it look like it did, but with steel.”

The west grandstands, crow’s nest and sky boxes were not damaged but the insurance company requires that a structural engineer look them over to make sure they were not compromised.

The north grandstands were damaged on May 12 from a windstorm; they are on the Nebraska Historic Register and will be rebuilt to look like the originals. Photo courtesy Nebraska’s Big Rodeo Facebook page

SCHEDULED EVENTS

Because of the damage, the inaugural Bulls and Broncs event, scheduled for May 27-28, has been canceled, Helgoth said, as the structural engineers who were contacted couldn’t be there till June, he said. “We are forced to cancel it,” he said, “and that’s a bummer.”

Donations are being accepted through Pathway Bank in Burwell (817 H Street, Burwell, NE 68823) and a GoFundMe page (https://gofund.me/035bebfe) has been opened. The Cowboy Channel has discussed starting a fundraiser as well, Helgoth said.

A windstorm with gusts up to 110 mph damaged grandstands and buildings at the Burwell, Neb. rodeo grounds. Photo courtesy Nebraska’s Big Rodeo Facebook page

It’s defeating to see the damage and realize the amount of work ahead, he said. “I’m tired,” he said. “It was hard to see it. When you really care about something so much and have cared about it your entire life, it’s very sad.”

There was a silver lining to the timing of the windstorm. Five days prior, they hosted a high school rodeo, “and the grounds were full with pickups and trailers and kids and horses, and if this would have happened then, there would have been deaths and horse losses. It would have been more devastating. You have to thank God nobody got hurt.”

But no matter what, this year’s 101st annual Nebraska’s Big Rodeo will go on, Helgoth said.

“We will have a rodeo in July. We will make it happen. We’re going to rebuild this thing, and it’s going to be back to what it was, if not better.

Wind damage is estimated to be around $1 million at the rodeo grounds for Nebraska’s Big Rodeo, but they will be ready for their annual rodeo July 27-30. Photo courtesy NBR Facebook page

“We are Nebraska and we are Burwell.”

The National Weather Service in North Platte surveyed the site and estimated that widespread straight line winds gusted from 70 to 110 mph, with resulting damage around the area, including numerous high tension power poles bent over at the base, the destruction of outbuildings, partial roof loss to residential homes, unoccupied campers that were rolled over, and a mature stand of ponderosa pines that were snapped in half.

This year’s Nebraska’s Big Rodeo is July 27-30. The rodeo is a 2022 inductee into the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame.


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