Now that spring has arrived, so has peak tornado and flash flood season. I have a love-hate relationship with cumulonimbus clouds. I love the dramatic lightning displays and majesty of the huge storm systems. I hate the hail, tornadoes, and flash flooding they bring.
The spring of last year brought deadly twin tornadoes that wiped out the nearby town of Pilger, just a few miles away from my home in Norfolk, Nebraska. I remember driving past the devastated town, wrecked farms and landscape every week last spring and summer.
Earlier, in October of 2013, a large, wedge tornado went through the Wayne, Nebraska vicinity and destroyed an area of that town. Some of the devastation happened less than a mile from my father’s home. The tornados that happened in the United States that year, occurred during the centennial year of the deadliest storm outbreak in Nebraska’s history.
The infamous Omaha Tornadoes of March 23, 1913 were the epicenter of a series of tornadoes and floods that ruined Easter Sunday across much of America’s heartland. The Omaha storms were the deadliest ones in Nebraska history. By the time it was over, seven tornadoes had killed 101 people and injured 350. No other major tornado event would affect Omaha until 1975.
On this day in 1913 another F4 tornado went through Missouri and another deadly F4 hit Terre Haute, Indiana that killed 21 people. The Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri outbreak of March 23rd affected an area hundreds of miles long. 70 more deaths and another 250 injuries need to be added to the death toll that day.
Weather historians agree that several tornadoes struck Nebraska and Iowa between 5:00 and 8:30 Easter night. Additional tornadoes were reported near Des Moines, Iowa and into Northwest Missouri.
There were no such technologies as radio, television, color radar nor orbiting NOAA satellites in 1913, so few people had advance knowledge of approaching severe weather. There were some people who did use the existing technology of the times to try to alleviate the impact of severe thunderstorms.
Mindful weather observers have watched and recorded data from direct experience and barometric readings for many decades. Barometric pressure readings may begin to fall several hours or even a few days in advance of approaching supercell formation conditions. As conditions worsen, the barometric pressure drops quite rapidly with the approach of a severe thunderstorm (meso-cyclone) with its upward spiraling wind updrafts.
Average, normal barometric pressure in the Omaha area is approximately 30.00 inches, give or take a few hundredths. At 7:00AM on Easter morning, 1913, the Omaha Weather Bureau recorded 28.50 inches. The official readings steadily dropped until 6:00PM, when the big tornado hit. The bureau recorded an official 27.90 inches at that time.
At the same time, the corporate president of Union Pacific Railroad noticed his recording barometer, located in his office, showed an unofficial low reading of 27.70 inches. He instantly became worried, so he telegraphed warnings to trains approaching the Omaha vicinity to proceed with watchfulness and extreme caution because the potential for tornadoes was very likely.
Unfortunately, because radio broadcasting was not possible at that time and just telephones and telegraphy were the only instant media, the vast majority of the population was unaware of the impending disaster that was about to happen to them.
The deadly Omaha area tornado outbreak came to life at 5:00PM two counties north of Omaha near Burt, Nebraska and Monona, Iowa. Half an hour later a funnel appeared at the northeastern edge of Lincoln, Nebraska, at the same time, another one appeared southwest of Omaha and traveled as far as Harrison, Iowa.
The worst one hit the ground at 5:45 just outside of Omaha in Sarpy County. It tracked through the town of Ralston and killed seven people there. Soon, the funnel cut a quarter mile wide swath across Omaha. It totally destroyed many businesses in downtown Omaha along with 600 homes leveled, and over 1,100 badly damaged. 94 people died in Omaha during this particular tornado. Two children died in Harrison County, Iowa when the same funnel crossed into that state.
The Yutan tornado dropped from the clouds around 6:15. It destroyed the northern half of Yutan, Nebraska and tracked to Logan, Iowa. 20 people lost their lives in that tornado. At the same time, a twister hit the ground in Otoe County, passed near the town of Syracuse and smashed into Berlin, Nebraska (now called Otoe). The death toll reached 25 from that incident. A seventh tornado was small and short-lived. The F2 traveled only five miles near Pawnee, Nebraska, then lifted back into the clouds. Nobody was killed nor hurt in that one.
When the total casualties and damage is tallied from all the outbreaks that day in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, and Nebraska, a total of 19 recorded tornadoes killed 241 people and $9,680,000 in 1913 dollars were reported.
That same cluster of severe weather systems was the start of the terrible phenomenon associated with the Great Flood of 1913. The 24th and 25th brought very heavy downpours to much of the Midwest and portions of New York State. Widespread severe flooding affected much of that area.