Sunday, December 2, 2012

'My Conception of Hell'


Death roared out of the southwest in four states, just as families were sitting down for Easter dinner.
Easter Sunday evening around 5:45 PM, after a pleasant afternoon hike southwest of Omaha, Nebraska, five athletic young men hasten back to the city ahead of a gathering thunderstorm. The wind rises ominously. As the sky behind them darkens to thick night-black, an unearthly roar like a cosmic freight train charges out of the distance, growing rapidly louder. With horror, the five realize they are directly in the path of a fearsome tornado hell-bent for Omaha. Scrambling down the banks of Little Papillion Creek, the hikers dive into the frigid, muddy waters. They frantically cling to the roots of trees swaying and laboring above them as the violent fury rages past.
In a sudden following downpour of rain, hail, and sleet, the hikers stumble out of the creek and onward toward the city, following what is now a path of uprooted trees and splintered farmhouses.  In the city on the horizon, they see lurid crimson fires ignite from ruptured gas mains. As the five reach a wayside tavern, a slender farmer boy, his face streaming with blood, gallops up on a winded, unsaddled horse. “Father is in the ruins and the house is on fire!” he sobs. “Can you get Omaha on the telephone? I want the fire department and some men with axes!”
Meantime, a short distance away on a train bound for Omaha, terrified passengers watched helplessly as the monstrous twister, whirling with lumber and rooftops, keeps up with the train, bounding fantastically across the ground. Wherever its funnel touches, houses explode, the sides falling in and the roofs sailing away; other entire houses are sent rolling and tumbling along the ground. The engineer slows the train to a halt; the passengers rush out to try to save the wounded groaning among the wreckage, some with arms and legs torn off.
In minutes, that Great Easter Omaha tornado kills 101 people—94 in the city alone.  A century later, it still ranks as Nebraska’s deadliest twister and the thirteenth deadliest in the entire nation. Rated today as F4—one of the most violent—it was spinning winds faster than 200 mph; its funnel, 400 yards wide, mowed through downtown Omaha at 65 miles per hour before crossing the Missouri River and continuing its swath of death into Iowa.
The next morning, Easter Monday, after Nebraska’s Governor John H. Morehead conducted an inspection tour of the city’s smoking rubble, he declared: “This is enough like my conception of hell to suit me.”
The Omaha tornado did not kill alone Easter night. It was one of an outbreak, or swarm, of deadly tornadoes. The most violent tornadoes are produced by storm systems known as supercell mesocyclones—parent thunderstorms about 6 miles across with exceptionally strong central updraft winds having a twisting motion. Although accounting for only 1 or 2 percent of thunderstorms, supercell thunderstorms cause nearly three-quarters of tornado fatalities. A single supercell can spawn more than one tornado. Moreover, a widespread storm system may have several associated supercells traveling together, each in difference stages of development, each producing its own tornado(es), often in succession, over hundreds of square miles and over the course of hours—a tornado outbreak.
That Easter evening, even as the Omaha tornado was rampaging through the city, at least three other violent F4 twisters were roaring along parallel paths across farmland north and south of Omaha. One of them, starting in Nebraska, hopped the Missouri River and smashed right through downtown Council Bluffs, Iowa. Two others still rank as second and third deadliest in Nebraska: the Yutan tornado to the north of Omaha killed 22, and the Berlin (Otoe) twister to the south killed 18. Yet, as Omaha citizens were counting their dead, they realized they had escaped a worse fate: those other two vortexes had funnels twice the diameter—up to 800 yards wide—of the one that churned its tragic path through downtown.

Looking back, ample evidence suggests the scale of death and destruction was even worse than reported in these official numbers. Careful reading of accounts in the Omaha Evening World-Herald and the Council Bluffs Evening Nonpareil between Easter Sunday and the end of the month—together with careful plotting of reported tornado damage and times on a map—reveals three sobering truths.

First, the swaths of destruction of the four known violent F4 tornadoes (Omaha, Council Bluffs, Yutan, and Berlin) ranged between 7 and 45 miles longer than either tornado expert Thomas Grazulis (now running The Tornado Project) or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have tabulated. Second, the newspaper reports disclose that this Easter Sunday outbreak included at least five additional somewhat smaller tornadoes in six more counties than conventionally tabulated at the same time of day (between 5 and 7 PM). Third, the placement of the unrecognized tornadoes as far east as within 40 miles of Des Moines and as far south as the Missouri border suggests that the geographical area covered by the supercell storm system was much more widespread and longer-lasting than possibly realized then or today.
All that evidence leads to the additional question whether another known violent tornado—an F4 twister 200 yards across in Missouri that killed 2 and injured 8 about 8:30 PM—also may have been at the tail end of the same outbreak. Altogether, evidence suggests the supercell thunderstorm spread over a region at least 100 miles across near the Nebraska–Iowa–Missouri borders, killing at least another 70 people and injuring another 250—perhaps 70 percent more victims than generally has been assumed (see map).

But that dreadful night of Easter Sunday, March 23, 1913, violent F4 tornadoes were not done with the nation. More than 500 miles east, around 9:30 PM, the biggest monster of all—with a funnel 1,000 yards wide—roared through southern Terre Haute, Indiana, killing another 21 and injuring 250 more. Thus, in less than 72 hours Holy Weekend 1913, winds of destruction—the Good Friday windstorm, the Good Friday tornado in Lower Peach Tree, Alabama (plus several others in Georgia and Mississippi), and the Easter Sunday tornadoes in four more states—had slaughtered at least 310 and maimed more than 1,260.  
And then began the deluge…

Next time: The Villain Who Stole the Flood

©2012–2013 Trudy E. Bell. For permission to reprint or use, contact Trudy E. Bell at
Caption to newspaper pages: Newspaper stories on Easter Monday about the Omaha tornado (top image; from the Omaha Evening World-Herald) and the Terre Haute tornado (from the Indianapolis Star) were just two of many published around the nation.

Caption to map: Map shows approximate paths of the March 23, 1913, Easter Sunday tornadoes in Nebraska, Iowa, and Missouri. Solid lines in black show are based on data collected by Thomas Grazulis in his classic two-volume work Significant Tornadoes. Dashed lines in red show extensions of the paths according to reports of damage printed in the Omaha Evening World-Herald and the Council Bluffs Evening Nonpareil. Solid lines in red denote paths for what may have been additional tornadoes also reported in those papers. (The Council Bluffs paper was particularly assiduous in sending reporters to document damage in Iowa.)

Selected references

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, 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.

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.

Monthly Weather Review, vol. 41, No. 3, March 1913.

Newspapers: Council Bluffs Evening Nonpareil, The Indianapolis Star, Omaha Evening World-Herald, for March 24-31, 1913

NOAA National Weather Service Weather Forecast Office, Omaha/Valley, “The Tornadoes of Easter 1913,” and more about the Omaha tornado and "The 25 Deadliest U.S. Tornadoes" . For background on supercell mesocyclones and their formation of violent tornadoes, see “Severe Weather 101/Tornado Basics” by NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory. See also some spectacular and informative storm-chasing photos of mesocyclones,supercells, and tornadoes .

Sing, Travis, Omaha’s Easter Tornado of 1913, Arcadia Publishing, 2003. Picture book abundantly showing the tragic damage to Omaha and recounting the city’s response.

No comments:

Post a Comment