Friday, April 1, 2016

Men of the Hour

Heedless of personal danger, a handful of police officers from the Indianapolis Police Department rescued over 600 people in devastated West Indianapolis during the Great Easter 1913 Flood. By guest author Patrick R. Pearsey

[The extraordinarily powerful and monumental-scale storm system that engulfed the Midwest beginning Easter weekend, March 1913 (see “The First Punch” and “Be Very Afraid...,”) swept Indianapolis with winds topping 60 mph and dropped more than 6 inches of rain in five days. That volume of rain, augmented by the high runoff of torrential rains elsewhere falling on unfrozen, saturated soils that could not absorb the water, rapidly swelled the White River, whose non-navigable west fork wanders through Indianapolis. The low-lying “Valley” section of West 

West Washington Street Bridge—the main thoroughfare in Indianapolis across the west fork of the White River—was photographed in the act of collapsing shortly after the peak of the 1913 flood on March 26. Note how the deck of the bridge is twisting. Credit: Indiana Historical Society

Indianapolis was the city’s hardest-hit area. Patrick R. Pearsey, a 36-year veteran civilian employee of the Indianapolis Police Department (renamed the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department in 2007), pieced together a timeline of how IPD men responded to the crisis—notably young Captain George V. Coffin and Sergeant Harry M. Franklin. –T.E.B.]  

The rain that began in the early morning of Easter Sunday, March 23, 1913, just kept falling without letup. 

Monday, March 24
By 8 AM on Monday, March 24, the west fork of the White River through Indianapolis had risen 7 feet in just 12 hours, and was nudging closer to the record high set in 1904. However, the Indianapolis Star stated the danger was not imminent, based on observations of two officers sent out from the headquarters of the Indianapolis Police Department (IPD) to inspect both banks of White River for a critical 3-mile stretch of low-lying land from West Morris Street to West Michigan Street Upon their return, beat patrolmen were ordered to keep an eye on the streams in their areas and raise an alarm as soon as dangerous conditions were seen.

Modern Google map indicating mentioned key locations of IPD action. West Indianapolis is the region lying left (west) of the White River. Note that a fair acreage of the low-lying land inundated during the 1913 flood is now public green space, rail yards, or other industrial land. Railroads in 1913 had different names
Still, the downpour continued in Indianapolis--indeed, across Indiana and beyond.

By just a few hours later (Monday noon), the situation was clearly getting grave. Water blocked by the West Washington Street Bridge—the main thoroughfare (on the old National Road) connecting West Indianapolis on the west side of the White River with the downtown of the main city of Indianapolis on the river’s east side—had risen so far that it began cutting into the banks on both sides of the river, flooding tenement buildings on low-lying land. A corps of mounted police and other police officers—likely bicyclemen (officers on bicycles)—rode up and down the streets of West Indianapolis, warning residents of the danger. Some residents started packing to evacuate but others just greeted them with laughs.

The IPD called out its police reserve with boats. When the boats arrived by automobile, Captain George V. Coffin led a squad to direct rescues of people from the tenements around West Washington Street and elsewhere west of White River. At age 37, Coffin had an impressive resume. He had served in the U.S. Army, including during the Philippine Insurrection and in China during the Boxer Rebellion. He also had experience in desperate rescue efforts: in August 1900 during the Boxer Rebellion, he had helped fight the way into Peking [Beijing] as part of the China Relief Expedition sent to rescue imprisoned U.S. citizens and foreign nationals. 

West Washington Street Bridge an hour before it collapsed. Credit: Indiana Historical Society

Coffin had been appointed to the IPD in 1906 and rose rapidly to sergeant (1908), detective (1909), captain (1910—one of IPD’s youngest). His leadership style inspired loyalty: he didn’t order officers to do things, he said ‘follow me, we’re going to do this’. As the turbulent floodwaters kept rising, Coffin and his men worked tirelessly far into the night, rescuing people in by boat. 

Tuesday, March 25
Despite the undercuts at both ends, the West Washington Street Bridge across the roaring White River was still standing, but its structure was so clearly threatened that before noon traffic across it was suspended except when imperative for rescues. Policemen stationed to guard each end were forced to fight to keep back spectators and anxious relatives, estimated at 30,000.

Still, the rain kept falling and the angry waters kept rising. By boat, Captain Coffin surveyed the situation all around West Indianapolis, telegraphing his findings to Chief of Police Martin Hyland at IPD HQ across the river. Assisted by Sergeant Harry M. Franklin, Coffin developed plans to help the population of West Indianapolis survive the disaster. Franklin, five years older than Coffin, had served in the Spanish-American War and the Indiana National Guard before being appointed drillmaster for the IPD, drilling its mounted and bicycle officers. 

Captain George V. Coffin (middle) and Bicyclemen Charles Gollnisch and Thomas O’Brien (left and right) not only rescued West Indianapolis residents during the 1913 flood but also helped with relief and cleanup after the flood. Credit: Indianapolis Star
All day, Coffin and his men—notably Bicyclemen Charles Gollnisch and Thomas O’Brien—repeatedly rowed a police boat up to rooftops where families had climbed to escape the floodwaters rising around and inside their homes. Family by family, Coffin and his men moved people in flooded homes to School No. 16 at West Market Street and Bloomington St. By nightfall, 470 persons were crowded in the school. 

Late Tuesday, Sgt. Harry Franklin was dispatched from IPD HQ to take sandwiches and coffee to all the men, women and children huddling in School No. 16, and to relieve Coffin and his men. A West Indianapolis boat merchant sent his entire stock of 32 new boats to the West Washington St. Bridge to put them at the disposal of the police and newspapers. When a large, rugged steel Mullins motorboat (this 1913 ad says they were built like “government torpedo boats”) was unloaded, from the crowd an Indianapolis lawyer Cass Connaway and two other men volunteered to drive the boat and man the tiller for Sgt. Franklin. 

The four men battled treacherous currents to steer the motor boat filled with sandwiches and cans of coffee some two miles to the school. “Suddenly the boat was seized by a powerful current rushing like a mill race under the elevated tracks at the Belt,” wrote the Indianapolis Star, referring to the Indianapolis Belt Railroad that circled the city. “The little motor churned the water furiously, but it was an unequal task. They shot through the subway and landed on the shore” on the far side of the tracks from West Ohio Street where they needed to be. 

The West Washington Street Bridge after its collapse; it was Indianapolis’s main thoroughfare crossing the White River (part of the old National Road). Credit: Indiana Historical Society

When the men appealed to a nearby firehouse for help, Fire Captain Marion B. Kemper at Hose Company 18 disobeyed direct orders from his superiors and refused to use firehouse equipment haul the motorboat the needed three blocks to get past the dangerous current. The men managed to borrow a horse and outright stole a wagon from the Belmont Telephone Exchange—grand larceny committed by a lawyer and police sergeant to complete their rescue mission of getting provisions to School No. 16. Reported the Star: “Their boat was soon churning the muddy waters of the night around Ohio street.”

Wednesday, March 26
It wasn’t until around 1 AM Wednesday morning that Franklin and his volunteer companions finally arrived at School No. 16, completely worn out but with the provisions. With Coffin were Patrolmen John Hostetter, Victor Houston, and William Cox, and Sergeant Harley Reed. Thus, along with Franklin, there were scarcely more than half a dozen IPD officers west of White River in the area of Indianapolis’s heaviest flooding. On Wednesday this group dispersed to repeatedly rescue residents.

Some of the rescues were themselves harrowing. On one trip, a man Coffin rescued—apparently driven insane by the trauma of the flood—attacked, and Coffin had to fight him off, the fight lasting all the way to the school. In the same boat were a retarded youth and a blind girl, along with the insane man’s companion, who was rowing. But in the scuffle, the companion fell overboard and was swept away. When the newspapers learned of the incident and wanted details, Coffin—upset at the companion’s drowning—refused to discuss the story further because he wanted to forget it. 

Wednesday morning, four IPD police officers, Captain Coffin, Sergeant Franklin, Patrolmen Houston and Hostetter, along with James Lampkin, deputy city clerk, helped between 450 and 600 flood refugees evacuate School No. 16, now surrounded by water. Credit: Indianapolis Star
Worse, if possible, when he reached School No. 16, he saw with sick dismay that the school, full of wet, cold and hungry people, was no longer a refuge: it was itself now surrounded by rising water. In trips carrying between three and six persons, he ferried them to houses on Washington Street and the Vandalia railroad tracks. Breaking into a grocery store to get them food to eat, Coffin obtained oil stoves, provisions and blankets for people who were being cared for in churches located at Miley Avenue and West Washington Street and at New York Street and Elder Avenue. For the first time in three days, he was able to make contact with Chief of Police Hyland at IPD HQ and requested bread.  

Unloading supplies for flood refugees near Coffin's temporary headquarters. Credit: Indiana Historical Society

The floodwaters crested overnight Tuesday night/Wednesday morning, when the White River reached a height of 25.7 feet, blasting through the previous record of 19.5 feet set on April 1, 1904, and sweeping away the government river gauge. About 1:30 a.m. Wednesday, almost all rescue work in West Indianapolis was stopped, because of the swiftness of the floodwaters’ current, the exhaustion of the workers, and poor visibility due to now-heavy snow. Many persons remained stranded on the roofs of their homes or in the upper stories. Wails of distress were widely reported to be heard in the early hours of the night. As the night wore on, the cries became ever more feeble until around 3 AM a dismal silence hung throughout the area above the turbulence of the floodwaters churning in the river and through the streets.

The night was also punctuated by the horrific roar of bridges collapsing, isolating West Indianapolis. About 8 PM Tuesday night, the Indianapolis & Vincennes railroad bridge was swept away. The Vandalia railroad bridge, south of West Washington Street, began being undermined by the water at 11 p.m. In a desperate effort to weigh it down and save it, the railroad company ran five coal cars out on top of it, two filled with bricks. Too little too late: the Vandalia bridge collapsed at 12:20 a.m. Wednesday.

Remains of the West Washington Street Bridge looking east toward downtown Indianapolis from West Indianapolis, after the floodwaters had receded and the White River was back within its banks. Credit: Indiana Historical Society
The West Washington Street Bridge—then (and still) the major thoroughfare in Indianapolis—was under severe strain, its girders having been struck repeatedly by tons of debris. The floor began slowly crumbling in the wee hours of Wednesday morning. Just before 6 AM, the east span fell into the White River with a crash. The east end of the bridge tore loose from the pier, the road bed sinking beneath the water. The middle span of the bridge also crashed into the river.    

The replacement cost of the West Washington Street Bridge at the time was estimated to be about $200,000 in 1913 dollars (an infrastructure project equivalent to $87.8 million in 2014 dollars, measured as a share of GDP). Indeed, at the time the city’s consulting engineer estimated the loss of bridges and culverts just in Marion County alone to top $1 million (more than $439 million today).
Coffin estimated there were 6,000 to 8,000 homeless people, all of whom were in need of food. He had confiscated all food stocks from every grocery and drug store in the sector and parceled them out to hungry people, but by midday Wednesday nearly all grocery stores west of White River were cleaned out. Coffin ordered that cars of provisions sitting on railroad sidings be broken into. He confiscated the meat from a box car and it was cooked that night in the ovens of Central Hospital.  By then, direct communications between the IPD on the east side of the White River with the police in West Indianapolis was impossible Wednesday as the Gamewell call boxes were out of service. 

Thursday, March 27
By Thursday, the floodwaters were clearly receding. But they were uncovering the muddy wreckage of entire neighborhoods. Many weeks of cleanup and reconstruction lay ahead.

For the duration of his service during the 1913 flood, Capt. Coffin set up temporary headquarters in West Indianapolis on Belmont Ave. at the at the Cincinnati, Hamilton and Dayton railroad tracks, a location that also served as the headquarters for the state militia. Credit: Indianapolis Star
When local newspapers found Coffin on Thursday, he was in his makeshift headquarters in a shack on Belmont Avenue at the Cincinnati, Hamilton and Dayton railroad tracks. Coffin was storing meat, flour and other provisions in churches and other buildings. He was feeding the hungry and giving clothes to the naked. Asked what day he first came out into the flood, he replied, “Let’s see – What day’s today? I’ve lost count.”

Roll of Honor (and infamy) 
In the days following the Great Flood of 1913, Captain George V. Coffin came in for adulation. But his first impulse was to turn the spotlight on the heroic actions of other police officers. He credited about 10 men with responsibility for the effective rescue work done despite West Indianapolis’s isolation at the peak of the disaster. One of these was IPD Sgt. Harry M. Franklin.

On April 9, 1913, Coffin submitted a report of the efforts during the flood to the Board of Safety. It included a list of names of police officers who would eventually have their names added to “The Flood Roll of Honor.” Medals were issued to these men. Eight months after the flood, in November 1913, Coffin himself was appointed Superintendent (Chief of Police). Franklin became instrumental in organizing and serving as marshal in virtually every important parade through Indianapolis for the next two decades until his death in 1935.

Roll of Honor mentioned in the Indianapolis Star, April 10, 1913
Some men were also brought up on charges for shirking their clear humanitarian duty. IPD Sergeant Harry M. Franklin filed paperwork which led to charges being filed against Fire Captain Marion B. Kemper by his superiors for disobeying orders in refusing to transport Franklin’s motor boat of provisions past the ferocious currents at the Belt. That three-block trip might have taken 15 minutes. 

Neither Franklin nor the men assisting him were charged with theft of the wagon in completing their rescue mission, nor were Coffin or his assistants charged for breaking into grocery stores or boxcars to obtain provisions and blankets for flood refugees. Everyone recognized the extraordinarily desperate time called for desperate measures.

Pearsey’s reconstructed 1913 flood roll of honor of IPD officers who served anywhere in the flood zones in Indianapolis (not just where Coffin and Franklin were), based on newspaper accounts and IPD sources.
Unfortunately, today no complete list of the names on the Flood Roll of Honor exists anywhere within the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department. The purpose of this historical account is in part, to make sure these officers are forever recognized for what they did in the worst catastrophe to ever strike the city of Indianapolis.

Patrick R. Pearsey is a third-generation member of his family to serve with the Indianapolis Police Department: his grandfather, father, uncle, and brother all were/are IPD officers from 1922 to the present. Hired as a civilian employee in 1980, Pearsey supervised the unit that typed police reports until 2011 when they closed them down.  Now he corrects police reports. Interested in the history of the IPD for more than three decades, he has become a de factor historian of the department, along with several others who are working to preserve the department’s history.  His interest in the 1913 flood also was handed down through his family, who lived just north of the 1913 flood zone; his great aunt Naomi (Pearsey) Page was a schoolgirl and vividly remembered how she and other family members having to dash across the Michigan Street bridge as floodwaters (which carried swimming rats) began covering it. To contact Pearsey, please e-mail me.

©2016 Patrick R. Pearsey

Next time: Crisis Communications in a Communications Crisis

Selected references
The 1913flood in Indianapolis extended miles farther north, south, and west than recounted by this focused guest post, submerging the water works, power plant, and gas works, as well as parts of downtown Indianapolis and elsewhere on the east side of the White River. This story of Capt. Coffin and Sgt. Franklin is just one part of a much more extensive history of the IPD’s actions during the 1913 flood (and biographies of many other IPD police officers) in an 87-slide PowerPoint presentation compiled by Pearsey, based on (among other sources) accounts in the Indianapolis News, the Indianapolis Star, the IPD archives, and the unpublished 423-page PDF Indianapolis Police Department Chiefs of Police 1854–2006 by former IPD police chief Michael T. Spears. 

Brossmann, Charles (consulting engineer, Indianapolis), “Effects of the Flood in Indiana,” Engineering Record 67(14): 372–374, April 5, 1913. Despite the title, the article’s primary focus is Indianapolis.
There are many ways to convert the value of historical sums of money. Officer, Lawrence H. and Samuel H. Williamson, “Measuring Worth is a Complicated Question;” for the actual calculator, see “Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1774 to Present.”See also their discussion “Choosing the Best Indicator to Measure Relative Worth,” using the cost of constructing the Empire State Building as an example for  an infrastructure project.

Bell, Trudy E., The Great Dayton Flood of 1913, Arcadia Publishing, 2008. Picture book of nearly 200 images of the flood in Dayton, rescue efforts, recovery, and the construction of the Miami Conservancy District dry dams for flood control. Author’s shameless marketing plug: Copies are available directly from me for the cover price of $21.99 plus $4.00 shipping, complete with inscription of your choice; for details, e-mail me, or order from the publisher.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

To Build a Tornado

Not one, but three violent tornadoes struck the Omaha metro area in a single hour Easter Sunday 1913. What weather conditions built those tornadoes? Could they recur? By guest author Evan Kuchera, USAF meteorologist

[Nebraska’s centennial commemorations of the devastating Omaha tornado on Easter Sunday 1913 left Department of Defense meteorologist Evan Kuchera, stationed at Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, with two burning questions: What meteorological conditions led up to such an extraordinary tragedy? Could those conditions recur today? Below is a condensation of a presentation he gave on his first results—a tour de force of sleuthing! –T.E.B.]

The Omaha tornado of March 23, 1913—rated as a violent F4 with a funnel of destruction a quarter-mile wide—still ranks as Nebraska’s deadliest, single-handedly claiming more than 100 lives (see “’My Conception of Hell’) and as the 13th deadliest twister in the nation. But it did not act alone. Ten minutes 

Map of the modern Omaha metro area with the approximate tracks of what were called the Yutan, Omaha, and Council Bluffs tornadoes. From west to east, all three F4 tornadoes—some of the most violent that occur—struck within 20 miles and 45 minutes. Credit: Evan Kuchera
earlier and 25 minutes later, two other violent F4 tornadoes also struck what is now the same metropolitan area, killing another 50 people.

Given that, on average, there are only maybe 10 such violent F4 tornadoes per year in the entire U.S., to have three of them hit 10 to 20 miles apart in the same metro area within a single hour is truly remarkable. It also begs the important question: could it happen again? 

To ascertain the odds, it’s necessary to figure out the larger context within which they formed.

Eight F4 and F3 tornadoes led to at least 201 deaths in Nebraska, Iowa, and Missouri Easter night, March 23, 1913; they were accompanied by other weaker ones in those states plus several in Kansas (not shown). The three that struck what is now the Omaha metropolitan area are the three tornadoes named “Omaha,” “Yutan,” and “Council Bluffs.” Credit: Trudy E. Bell

First I went back to original 1913 weather reports as well as several dozen newspaper accounts from four states (scans supplied by historian/science journalist Trudy E. Bell) and plotted data by hand; then my meteorologist colleague and coauthor Jeff Hamilton ran the data through a supercomputer simulation tool to see if we could reconstruct a more complete picture of the meteorological events according to current scientific understanding.

Buried data about the freakish storm system
In 1913, the average lay person in Nebraska or other tornado-prone areas recognized that tornadoes occurred on unusually warm and humid days, produced by odd-looking parent thunderstorms that usually moved from southwest to northeast. People knew they needed to go below ground to escape, and often there was a calm before the storm.

Types of observational data Kuchera consulted

But these Easter 1913 tornadoes were unexpected, if not freakish, in many ways. In Nebraska, March is early for tornadoes; peak tornado season is May and June. Quotes from many people in newspapers as well as a meteorologically savvy professor at Creighton College (now University) indicated that Easter Sunday must not have been a very hot or oppressive day. Highs that day approached 60 degrees, and no reports earlier in the day suggest that anyone perceived the weather as being unusually sultry or warm for the end of March—and those informal reports are backed by the recorded official data. That is meteorologically significant because cool air holds less moisture and less heat energy than warm air.

Daily weather map from a NOAA archive shows a high-pressure system to the east and a low-pressure system approaching from the west, drawing up moisture from the Gulf of Mexico.

A daily weather map in the archives of today’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) shows that at 8 AM Easter Sunday, March 23, 1913, a significant high-pressure system was receding to the east, and a low-pressure system was approaching out of Colorado. That’s a standard storm track in the winter. Little arrows indicate the clockwise flow around the high and the counter-clockwise flow around the low, indicating that moisture was being pulled up from the Gulf of Mexico to the south. Also—as you would expect for a storm system that could produce tornadoes as early as late March—the low-pressure system is very strong.

National Weather Service personnel as well as volunteer cooperative observers (the NWS Cooperative Observer Program COOP, started in 1890, still continues today) recorded prescribed observations in the morning and evening, typically at 7 AM and 7 PM Central time, called 1Z and 13 Z on the charts (Z stands for Zulu, or Greenwich Mean Time, a universal reference regardless of time zone; there was no daylight saving time in 1913). Scans of these official reports, archived by the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) and extending back well over a century, are accessible in an online database. From these reports, we can reconstruct a surprising amount of information about how the powerful storm system developed over Nebraska on Easter Sunday 1913.

Kuchera consulted the handwritten reports from cooperative observers all around Nebraska. Such COOP reports show high and low temperatures, precipitation, prevailing winds, and comments for significant events. In some regions, these reports are quite dense (one per county) for Nebraska, sparsely populated in 1913. This one for the month of March 1913 was from the COOP observer in Osceola in Polk County. Courtesy National Climatic Data Center

For example, the COOP observer in Osceola, about 60 miles west of Omaha, noted that about 4:30 PM, the wind there shifted from the south to the northwest. In 1913, no one yet had the concept of a front—the leading edge of a cold or warm air mass—so they were not able to say that a front came through, and just noted the wind shift. But based on the other data I’ve seen and my knowledge of meteorology, 4:30 PM would have been the time the cold front would have moved through Osceola. Indeed, this wind-shift comment was extremely helpful in placing the position of that cold front at 4:30, which is an actual observation I would not have otherwise had. 

The observer also noted “Omaha tornado.” That notation gives a sense of the weather savviness of these volunteers: they understood that a wind shift was related to thunderstorms and tornado weather. So they knew that the front that came through Osceola at 4:30 PM was likely the cause of what happened to their east an hour or so later.

Mapping the weather details
From the National Weather Service data in Monthly Weather Review, I plotted by hand all the high temperatures across more than half a dozen states on Easter Sunday, March 23 1913. Note that there was a lot of cold air north of this low-pressure system: northwestern Nebraska had 30s for highs, while south of Nebraska temperatures reached the 80s. The temperature gradient is very tight: there was a rapid change of temperature across a short distance—a sure indication of a strong weather system.

Kuchera’s hand analysis of Easter Sunday high temperatures
But my plot of high temperatures reveals another significant feature. Note the little patch of temperatures that exceeded 80 degrees in Kansas and Oklahoma, and how that is nudging toward southeastern Nebraska. That is evidence of the presence of a dry line. The dry line is the demarcation between the mass of moist air from the Gulf of Mexico and the mass of arid inland air from the Rocky Mountains to the west. Typically, the highest temps are right along the dry line. You frequently see a dry line set up in situations like this: the low pressure system draws warm moist air up from the south, but warm dry air is already in place, so a boundary forms between the two even though there is not any strong temperature change across the boundary. 

Kuchera’s summary of observations of dust, high winds, hail, and rain in the COOP reports for Easter Sunday, March 23, 1913, hand-plotted on a map of Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, and Missouri counties.

From COOP reports and comments, I also able to synthesize a storm report summary as you would see today. On a map of counties in four states, I plotted dust (D), strong winds (W), hail (H), and rain (R). The dust observations reveal the extent of the dry line where warm, dry, dust-laden air made it across Kansas and neighboring states (see “Great Easter 1913 Dust Storm, Prairie Fires—and Red Rains). Kansas had few rain reports, hinting that there were not widespread thunderstorms as there were up in Nebraska. Thus, a lot of the Kansas winds were not related to thunderstorms, but were gradient winds associated with the low-pressure system. On the other hand, the high winds in Nebraska are associated with the thunderstorms. My plot reveals the high concentration of severe weather where the thunderstorms came through, but there was other severe weather as well, notably hail and severe winds.

Kuchera’s map of the Great Plains plotting observed temperatures (T), dew point temperatures (Td), and winds for 7 AM Easter Sunday morning 1913 reveals why tornadoes 10 hours later near Omaha were so unexpected. Winds are indicated by the little barbs with the flags:  The direction the barbs point shows wind direction, and the number of flags on the barb is sustained wind strength (e.g., two flags indicate 20 knots or nautical miles per hour). Temperatures at 7 AM are numbers in red, and dew points are numbers in green.

I also plotted winds, temperatures, and dew points for 7 AM Central (13Z) Easter morning. The dew point is the temperature at which dew can form: the higher the dew point, the more humid the air and the greater the chance of severe weather. The threat of tornadoes increases when dew point temperatures exceed 55 degrees—areas shaded in darker green. The map shows that mass of moist air was nowhere near Nebraska 10 hours before the tornadoes. 

In Omaha itself, it surprised me to see that—for such powerful tornadoes that afternoon—the morning temperature was 40 degrees. There was certainly no clue that morning that there would be severe weather later that day. It was a typical cool March morning. Yes, some winds had picked up from the south, but March in Nebraska is a windy time, so that in itself is not altogether unusual. Several locations show 20-knot winds, there is a 25-knot wind at Amarillo, Texas. But that morning, few features were yet in play.

Kuchera’s map for 7 PM Easter Sunday evening of the Great Plains plotting winds, temperatures, and dew point temperatures reveals the meteorological conditions shortly after most of the deadly tornadoes had passed (another F4 still had yet to form in Missouri). It reveals the moisture from Oklahoma and Texas rapidly moved north that day: note three or even four flags on some barbs, meaning a 30- or even 40-knot sustained wind, which is incredibly strong.

Twelve hours later (7 PM Easter evening in Nebraska, or 1Z March 24), official readings were taken shortly after most of the tornadoes had passed. Plotting that data reveals what we now know was the low-pressure front in western Iowa where the tornadoes had just ended. Observations recorded in Lincoln and Omaha both show that the winds have switched to the north and the temperatures have plummeted. 

But note how the dew points in Missouri, Iowa, and Illinois have all dramatically jumped up in the upper 50s or around 60, whereas the morning dew points in those areas were in the 40s or even in the 30s. That reveals that Gulf of Mexico moisture moved rapidly north up from Oklahoma and Texas, across Kansas, and into Nebraska and Iowa—brought by sustained winds of up to 40 knots. Those are incredibly strong sustained winds. Together, the dew points and winds recorded indicate that this Easter 1913 low pressure system was very intense, drawing up moisture very fast.

Note the similarity of this generic map of conditions ripe for tornadoes to the map of meteorological conditions on Easter Sunday, March 23, 1913, which Kuchera was able to synthesize from 1913 observations to deduce the positions of the warm and cold fronts and dry line
The dashed line indicates the position of the dry line. How do I know where it likely was? Official weather records document that in Dodge City that the dew point was only 15, so we know the dry line is east of there. But in Wichita the dew point is still 58, so we also know that the dry line is still to the west. The dry line could have been anywhere between these two observations. But the newspaper accounts from Trudy allowed me to time when and where weather features moved through. The data also allowed me to provide my best guess for the locations of the cold front (blue triangles) and warm front (red half-circles) were at 7 PM Easter night.

Reconstructing the crime scene
So much changed in under 12 hours. As the low-pressure system intensified, strong frontal systems developed, so it is not surprising some violent tornadoes emerged. Because they developed about two hours before the official reports, we don’t have official observations directly from that time. But important clues in the COOP reports, newspaper accounts, and later scientific articles allow us to reconstruct weather conditions leading up to the major tornado outbreak. 

For example, a 1914 journal article written by G.E. Condra and G.A. Loveland, two professors at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, stated that the relative humidity in Lincoln jumped from 53% to 78% from 2150Z to 2230Z—that is, from 3:50 PM and 4:30 PM local time. When the relative humidity jumps like that, it’s one of two things: either the temperature dropped so you have the same amount of moisture in colder air, or the temperature stayed the same and the moisture content went up. The cold front could not have gone through Lincoln yet because the wind shift wasn’t recorded in Osceola—which is west of Lincoln—until 4:30 PM; thus, there’s no way the front could have been all the way to Lincoln yet. So the humidity jump must mean that over a 40-min period these high dew pts arrived, and they arrived very quickly. That relative humidity change corresponds to about a 10-degree jump in dew point—a really large, substantial jump in a severe weather situation. 

Now, the Omaha tornado started in Lincoln started right around 23Z, that is, around 5 PM local time. So, essentially, the moisture required to create the tornado arrived in Lincoln an hour before the storms formed. The timing on this intersection of events is just impeccable: the very intense low-pressure system, the arrival of all that moisture, and then the cold front and dry line all came together right like magic in the late part of the day. 

Kuchera’s deduced estimate of weather conditions around 5 PM Easter Sunday 1913—the final map of the “magic moment” when all the conditions met to create the family of violent tornadoes.

The major tornadoes all developed roughly in the next hour. As the cold front/dry line came through, you can imagine all the thunderstorm activity out in front of it. This is what I originally set out to do with this project and sleuthing: to make this map reconstructing the surface chart at that time, based on all the information and data I had and modern meteorological knowledge.

Some descriptions from various people are meteorologically significant. The professor at Creighton noted that immediately behind the Omaha tornado, the sky was clear right up to the cirrus cloud and that the cumulonimbus banked “mountain high” behind the tornado, the highest he’d ever seen. His desciption is painting a very dramatic picture of what the storm actually looked like. He also reported not much rain as the tornado passed, although a heavy thunderstorm followed 15 minutes later. 

Because that same sequence of events was also observed in Lincoln, I’m thinking two things: First, along the cold front itself there was a solid line of thunderstorms. However, about 30 miles ahead of the cold front, discrete supercell thunderstorms formed. (Supercells are rotating storms that give rise to the most violent tornadoes.) Discrete storms are best for tornadoes in favorable environments because there are no nearby thunderstorms that disrupt tornado formation processes due to storm collisions. So the conditions were exactly right for very violent tornadoes to form.

Condra and Loveland reported the low pressure center reached a surface low pressure of 991 millibars. That is pretty intense. They also reported that the cloud level was low with the tornadoes. When the relative humidity is high—as it was here (78 percent) and you lift the air, it makes a cloud at a lower base. We know from modern research that low cloud base is one of the key ingredients to making violent tornadoes. So that observation was an important detail.

Kuchera’s redrawn map of tracks and timing of five of the major tornadoes in the Great Easter 1913 outbreak in the Lincoln/Omaha area, superimposed on a modern map.

Note the southward progression with time in the order in which the tornadoes formed. This ties in neatly with the notion that there was an intersection between the cold front and the dry line: as the cold front swept south and overtook the dry line, their intersection moved farther south. That intersection was where lift was strongest for generating supercells and tornadoes, which would then move northeast. This process continued into northwest Missouri until about 8 PM that night, when the last F4 spun off. 

One last note: the tornado that devastated Omaha was not the strongest one in the family. Condra and Loveland noted “extreme energy” in the Yutan and Berlin (also called Otoe) tornadoes. The only reason those two especially intense tornadoes did not kill more people is that they went through sparsely populated rural areas.

Hopes for the future
I feel I understand this Great Easter 1913 tornado outbreak better than any modern event I’ve examined. All the brain power required to piece together all these puzzle pieces created in my mind a 3D conceptual model of what was actually going on—really surprising, given that it’s a hundred years old and the data are really sparse. Nonetheless, I feel pretty confident that what I’m laying out here is what really happened. Hopefully we can learn from it for future events. 

[This research blog installment represents only the first half of Kuchera’s presentation, covering his hand analysis. He and several colleagues also ran the 1913 tornado data through a major computational tool called the Twentieth-Century Reanalysis Project (20CR) On U.S. Department of Energy supercomputers. 20CR was developed in the last decade by NOAA and various U.S. and international partner agencies to elucidate long-term relationships between weather and climate. However, it also enables today’s meteorologists to use historic surface measurements of atmospheric pressure to reconstruct probable conditions in the atmosphere aloft, thereby gaining insight as to the possible physical causes of historic extreme weather events (see the use of 20CR by Cleveland National Weather Center senior hydrologist Sarah Jamison in reconstructing the events leading up to the 1913 flood in "Be Very Afraid..."). Kuchera and his colleagues intend to prepare their computational work in reconstructing the Great Easter 1913 tornadoes work for scientific publication; the results of this computational modeling will be summarized as a later post at an appropriate time. – T.E.B.]

About the Author

Department of Defense meteorologist Evan Kuchera at his station at Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, Nebraska. Credit: Trudy E. Bell
Evan Kuchera, a life-long resident of Nebraska, has always been fascinated by the severe weather that strikes each spring and summer, leading to his choice of a career in meteorology by attaining an MS from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. His current job as DOD meteorologist is to utilize numerical weather modeling to provide forecast information for the needs of the US Air Force as part of the 16th Weather Squadron in the 557th Weather Wing.

Next time: Men of the Hour

Selected references
Descriptions of the entire family of Easter 1913 tornadoes can be found in Bell, Trudy E., “The Devastating Nebraska–Iowa–Missouri Tornadoes of 1913:Harbingers of the U.S.’s Now-Forgotten Most Widespread Natural Disaster,” unpublished research paper presented at the 2007 Missouri Valley History Conference in Omaha, Nebraska. It cites specific newspaper accounts as evidence for the tornadoes being more numerous, more destructive, and more lethal than official figures suggest. Included is a discussion why newspaper reporters, railroad personnel, and farmers would have been reliable and credible observers for tracing additional damage and inferring the full extent of the supercell storm system.

Fujita scale circle diagram Credit: timesonline
Background about violence of tornadoes is at this NOAA page. The Fujita scale circle diagram at left may also help visualize the damage wreaked by tornadoes,

The concept of weather fronts being leading edges of air masses of different temperature and humidity--a concept fundamental to modern meteorology--was not described until 1919, and took a couple of decades to be widely accepted.
Condra, G.E., and G.A. Loveland, “The Iowa-Nebraska Tornadoes of Easter Sunday, 1913,” Bulletin of the American Geographical Society 46(2): 100–107, 1914.
Grazulis, Thomas P., Significant Tornadoes, 1880-1989. St. Johnsbury, VT: Environmental Films, 1991. Classic and fascinating two-volume reference detailing virtually every U.S. tornado F2 and greater for more than a century. Grazulis now runs The Tornado Project.

Information about metropolitan statistical areas used by the U.S. Census Bureau, the Office of Management and Budget, and other organizations is here and here. A map of the Omaha-Council Bluffs-Fremont combined statistical area is here.

A hand analysis of the Great Easter 1913 F4 tornado—separate from the Nebraska-Iowa-Missouri family—that devastated Terre Haute, Indiana after 9 PM that same night, see “Terror in Terre Haute.” 

Various Nebraska centennial commemorations are recounted inHappy 1913Centennial Year!” (January 6, 2013); “1913 Great Easter Disaster Centennial Update” (February 2); “Centennial Month! Events Update” (March 3); “Centennial Update: April through December” (April 13), and "1913 Easter National Calamity: Centennial Highlights--and Legacy" (January 1, 2014).

For how Cleveland-based U.S. National Weather Service hydrologist Sarah Jamison used 20CR to reconstruct the meteorology leading up to the Great Easter 1913 flood in Ohio and Indiana, see “Be Very Afraid….

Bell, Trudy E., The Great Dayton Flood of 1913, Arcadia Publishing, 2008. Picture book of nearly 200 images of the flood in Dayton, rescue efforts, recovery, and the construction of the Miami Conservancy District dry dams for flood control, including several pictures of Cox. (Author’s shameless marketing plug: Copies are available directly from me for the cover price of $21.99 plus $4.00 shipping, complete with inscription of your choice; for details, e-mail me), or order from the publisher.