The deadliest tornado outbreak in Nebraska's history occurred 100 years ago this month, on Sunday, March 23, 1913. A series of deadly tornadoes raked eastern Nebraska into western Iowa, leaving hundreds of casualties and entire neighborhoods and towns devastated.
A review of the most deadly tornadoes on that date is here.
A review of the Ralston-Omaha tornado in particular is here.
A photo gallery of damage from the Ralston-Omaha tornado is here.
It is rare to get an F4/EF4 tornado at all, let alone through the heart of a major city. Omaha already was a large city in 1913, but the city and surrounding areas have grown substantially in the last 100 years. What would it look like if the same tornado outbreak happened today?
Meteorologists at the National Weather Service office created maps of the approximate tracks of several of those Easter Outbreak tornadoes, overlaid on modern map backgrounds. The map of all of the tornado tracks, as recreated today, is below. Descriptions of individual tornadoes are below, with links to .kmz files for each path. These files can be opened in Google Earth so that you can zoom in and see for yourself where these tornadoes may have tracked.
An image of the Ralston-Omaha tornado path, for example, is shown above (download the kmz file here). The track is an approximation, but let's look at it more closely to see what could happen if a tornado followed this path today. The tornado touched down somewhere southwest of downtown Ralston, perhaps west of Papillion or even in southwest Sarpy County, and crossed right over the heart of downtown Ralston. It moved across the southeast side of the 72nd and L St. intersection, hitting numerous business and industrial buildings. The tornado would have crossed I-80 just west of the 60th St. intersection, and though it was a holiday weekend, the heavily trafficked interstate would still have many cars and trucks at around 5:45-6:00 PM. Next, the tornado would have ravaged businesses on the northwest side of 60th and Grover St. and a neighborhood area on the northeast side of 60th and Grover St. The tornado would have crossed Center St. between 51st and 50th Sts., devastating businesses along Center St. as it crossed into another subdivision. Paralleling and about a block east of Saddle Creek Rd., the tornado would continue to rake family homes on its way to Leavenworth St. Here, the tornado may have made its most devastating blow, as it would have passed over the heart of the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) campus, covering nearly every building, including the hospital itself. The impact could have been eerily similar to the direct hit on a hospital during the Joplin, MO, tornado (EF5 on May 22, 2011). The corridor of destruction would have continued to near 40th and Dodge, including a blow to Clarkson College and a dense business district along Dodge and Farnham Sts. near 42nd St. Here, the tornado would make its well-known strike to Joslyn Castle and would hit the Duchesne school complex as it moved toward the northeast side of 33rd St. and Cuming St., toward the heart of Bemis Park. The North Freeway didn't exist in 1913, but the modern tornado would cross the North Freeway at Parker St., halfway between Hamilton and Lake Sts. A cluster of churches would lie in the path on the southeast side of the North Freeway and Lake St. interchange as the tornado moved toward 24th St. and Lake St., then 20th St. and Locust St. The tornado would cross Florence Blvd. between Locust St. and Kountze Park, then cross the west side of Carter Lake as it set its sights on Eppley Airfield. Though missing the airport terminal itself, the tornado would have crossed the north side of the runway and many industrial buildings, and it would have made a direct hit on the weather instruments that take official observations for Omaha. The tornado would be done with Omaha, but not done with its devastation, as it crossed into Iowa. It would hit another major interstate, crossing I-29 about a mile south of the interchange with I-680 near Crescent. The tornado would cross the Crescent Quarry and skirt the north side of the town of Crescent, then parallel the Old Lincoln Highway for several miles. It would cross an interstate one more time, as it passed over I-680 a mile east of the Beebeetown exit, and it would take a final swipe at Beebeetown before lifting somewhere just to the northeast.
The same storm that spawned the Ralston-Omaha tornado also produced the Lincoln/Havelock tornado before it moved into Omaha (download the kmz file here). That tornado would have paralleled Highway 6 from west Lincoln to Greenwood. In west Lincoln/Havelock, the tornado would have raked the row of industrial buildings on the south side of the Cornhusker Highway, then crossed I-80 at the Waverly interchange. The southeast side of Waverly would have been hit, including Waverly High School. Beyond Waverly, the tornado would track between Highway 6 and I-80, passing mainly over farmsteads and ending just east of Greenwood.
Other tornado paths that passed over mostly low-population farmland in 1913 would hit more densely populated areas today. The Yutan-Blair-Woodbine tornado is a clear example of this (download the kmz file here). Touching down near the University of Nebraska agriculture research center south of Mead, it would strike Yutan before crossing the Platte River. The tornado would pass between Waterloo and Valley, crossing Highway 275 a mile east of the downtown Valley interchange and a mile west of the intersection with Maple St./Highway 64. The tornado would clip the south side of the King Lake settlement as it crossed the Elkhorn River, then pass just north of the Mt. Michael Benedictine High School. From here, after moving through farmsteads, the tornado would strike a blow to the high-valued Bennington Lake subdivision, though it would miss downtown Bennington to the west. The tornado again would move across farmlands, passing just north of the Blair Airport as it crossed Highway 133. Though dangerously close to Fort Calhoun, the tornado would pass about 1-2 miles north of the nuclear plant as it crossed the Missouri River and entered the DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge. It would narrowly miss the interchange of I-29 and Highway 30, crossing I-29 about a mile north of that interchange. The town of Missouri Valley also would be spared as the tornado would pass about 1-2 miles north of the town. The tornado would parallel Highway 30 for the rest of its path, and the town of Logan would not be as lucky, as the north and northwest sides of the town would be in the path. The Union Pacific rail line would be under the path of the tornado for miles, almost certainly disrupting train traffic. The tornado would lift just southeast of Woodbine, after skirting the southermost fringes of town.
The Council Bluffs tornado also would pass through areas that are much more densely populated today than in 1913 (download the kmz file here). Touching down in Bellevue, near the Kennedy Freeway between Highway 370 and Cornhusker Rd., the tornado would begin doing damage immediately as it crossed Fort Crook Rd. and took aim at the Fontenelle Hills Country Club. After crossing the Missouri River, the tornado would almost immediately cross Lake Manawa, exiting on the northeast side of the lake on the north side of a residential area. The tornado would make a direct hit on the extensive Lake Manawa shopping and restaurant complex as it raked across the I-80/I-29S interchange. From here, the tornado would parallel I-80 for miles, impacting businesses on the south side of the Madison Ave. interchange, then residences and churches south of McPherson Ave. before following Sunnydale Rd. northeastward to Highway 6, destroying homes along the way. The tornado then would cut a long path through farmland southeast of Underwood and Neola, barely missing the town of Minden on the southeast side. The tornado would cross I-80 3-4 miles west of the Shelby exit, then just clip the northwest side of Shelby and cross more farmland before dissipating just southeast of Harlan.
The Berlin tornado is famous for devastating the town now known as Otoe (download the kmz file here). It would touch down in southwest Otoe County about 2 miles south of Douglas. Moving northeastward as all the tornadoes did on that day, the tornado would skirt the northwest side of Syracuse as it crossed the Highway 2/Highway 50 interchange. After passing over the town of Otoe, this tornado would continue to cut across mainly farmsteads, passing just about a mile northwest of the town of Union and crossing Highway 75 about 1-2 miles north of Highway 34 West. The path would cross the Missouri River near Goose Island, then cross I-29 just north of the Bartlett exit at Waubonsie Ave. The tornado would track along the Loess Hills, emerging a few miles southeast of Glenwood and crossing Highway 34 near the interstection of Highway 949. Continuing to cut through farmland areas, the tornado would reach the town of Macedonia as it was ending.
The Craig tornado did much of its damage in 1913 close to its touchdown point (download the kmz file here). The tornado touched down somewhere west of Craig and made a direct strike on the town. The tornado would cross Highway 32 just a mile or two northeast of there, and about 5 miles west of Tekamah, cutting across farmland to then cross Highway 75 about 3-4 miles north of Tekamah. The tornado would continue across farmland to cross the Missouri River, then strike I-29 just south of the Blencoe exit before strking the west and northwest sides of Blencoe.
One notable feature about this tornado outbreak is the number of interstate crossings. Each of these tornadoes, F3 to F4 in strength, would have crossed a major interstate at least once. Tornadoes were moving rapidly during this event, and many travelers would have been endangered. The tornadoes would have crossed farmland, neighborhoods, business districts, industrial complexes, and major facilities. Homes ranging from working class neighborhoods to multi-million dollar communities would have taken direct blows. The damage would easily reach the billions of dollars in today's dollars, given the amount of damage that would be done in today's Nebraska and Iowa. It is inevitable that strong and violent tornadoes will occur again in this part of the country. Knowing what has happened in the past can help us prepare for what may happen in the future.