25 years ago today: the Tornado of 1988.

angry sky

A quarter-century ago today, July 15, 1988, was one of the single most memorable days of my life. I was living in Omaha, Nebraska, spending the summer with my sister (I was then 15, almost 16). That Friday afternoon, a bout of severe weather struck the Omaha metro area. The single most awesome thunderstorm I ever witnessed spawned a tornado which floated down over Omaha and touched the ground in Council Bluffs, Iowa, across the river. The storm destroyed 18 homes and did $27 million in damage.

That’s not a lot by the standards of modern twisters, and the “Tornado of 1988” is remembered by almost nobody who didn’t live through it. I did find this article from 2008, the 20th anniversary of the disaster, with one very bad grainy photo and a few reminiscences. The storm is not that well remembered in Omaha, where it did little damage; you hear people talk about the Tornado of 1975 far more often. But it was a big deal when it happened, and one of the strangest experiences I ever lived through.

July 15, 1988 was a very hot and muggy Friday afternoon. The clouds moved in about 3PM. My sister and I were doing some errands around town–I specifically remember being at the library of the University of Nebraska at Omaha, reading some random book I found about the war in Afghanistan (yes, I was a very bookish youth, and I’ve grown into a bookish adult). Later we went to lunch at a Chinese restaurant. I recall the place didn’t have windows. It was sunny, bright and muggy, about 91 degrees, when we went in. When we came out after lunch the sky was filled with angry gray-black clouds, much like the photo above (which is not of the 1988 event).

Growing up in Omaha, we’re used to severe weather, but when the sky opened and huge black raindrops began to fall, we realized we were on the verge of a major weather event. We drove home–at that time we lived in a tiny brick house on Izard Street, which was built in 1916. The storm was already raging. We went down to the basement, where my bedroom was, and laid on the bed waiting for the storm to pass.

Those few minutes, lying on the bed in the basement, were some of the longest, strangest minutes of my entire life. Both my sister and I became oddly disoriented. Time seemed to slow down, even stop. Later we attributed a sudden drop in air pressure–which is associated with tornadoes–as a cause of our disorientation. Perhaps I fell asleep, but I don’t think so; the roar of the wind was so great that one could hardly sleep. We were literally afraid the house was being destroyed above us. The storm peaked at 4:21 PM. When it receded, we reticently went upstairs. A window was broken and the yard was full of debris, but our house was intact.

As it turned out, the tornado that devastated Avenue K in Council Bluffs was forming right above the neighborhood where we lived. Witnesses saw the funnel coming down out of the clouds right above our street, though it didn’t reach the ground yet. It touched down across the river, but the maelstrom that passed over us still did plenty of damage. In the backyard I found ears of corn that were completely stripped of kernels just lying on the grass. The nearest cornfields were several miles away.

I’m not sure I was ever really in danger, but the Tornado of 1988 was a profound experience for me. The sense of time slowing down was something I’ll never forget. I’ve revisited that moment often in my writing. Jake’s 88, an as-yet unpublished novel that I began writing while still in high school, has as its climax the Tornado of 1988 and a strange sensory experience. The time stretching is a key part of my unfinished book The Valley of Forever, and my lifelong fascination with Borges began within months after my experience in the tornado. Clearly something about the experience changed me in ways that I still can’t identify today.

One thing I remember after the storm was lying on my bed in the darkened basement–the power was knocked out for a day afterward–listening to the radio on my Walkman for reports on the damage. One station I listened to must have been classic rock. The song “Let it Be” by the Beatles came over the airwaves. I will always associate that song with this event and that strange, mind-blowing Friday in July. It’s hard to believe it was 25 years ago.

Gratuitously, I throw in “Let it Be” to finish up this blog post. Click the video below and you will hear what July 15, 1988 sounded like to me.

Advertisements
Follow SeanMunger.com on WordPress.com

20 Comments on 25 years ago today: the Tornado of 1988.

  1. Ryan Deane // July 16, 2013 at 3:55 am // Reply

    Yes, I remember it too. I was 14 and living in South Omaha. I had just got back from the grocery store. The sky went from sunny to ominous in no time. I remember looking out the window at 4:11 pm just before going downstairs. The sky had that ugly neon green tint which indicates you know what. When the storm hit, the windows in the house started whistling. Yep, that may have something to do with the pressure drop you were talking about. Despite violent downburst winds of 100-120 mph, the house escaped damage–a lot of downed trees and power lines (without power for 5 or 6 days).

    I agree. Outside of Council Bluffs, not too many people remember this storm. However, this is one I know I will never forget.

    • That is creepy. I was in the UNO library in the meteorology section when the storm developed. I remember there was absolutely no forecast of any severe weather, but on the way to the library I saw the thermal just pop into the stratosphere and you knew it was going to be bad. The other thing I remember: being in the basement, listening to Dale Munson cautioning viewers that what he saw might NOT be a wall cloud (even though it was plainly spinning) and all the media coverage going quiet after the storm crossed the river. At least until the tornado touched down.

      • Chuck, that jives totally with my own recolllections. Weird that you were also in the library. I don’t suppose you recall seeing a skinny gawky kid milling about? Anyway, fascinating to connect with someone who remembers this event as vividly as I do.

      • I think we may have been in different sections. Were you actually in the library when the warning came down?

      • I believe the warning went out when I was having lunch at the Chinese restaurant. I think I was at the library less than an hour before the warning, though.

  2. I remember it very well. We lived on Ave I in Council Bluffs and were right in the middle of the destruction.

  3. I recall a tornado in ’86 or ’87… I was in the Taco Bell drive-through with my mother — we were ordering those delicious cinnamon “chips” they once served — and the warning sirens went off. Frightening! We lived on Avenue K at the time, so we were home shortly and in the basement.

    We moved to the east side of town, Horizon Drive, in ’87 when I was five, so we weren’t near Avenue K to directly experience any of the tornados.

    Sean, your account of the Tornado of 1988 is an interesting read. Also interesting to read the comments and others’ memories. Thanks for sharing all.

    • Thanks! It’s rare to find someone who remembers the 1988 tornado. As the damage was in Council Bluffs, not Omaha, it did not achieve nearly the saturation in local memory that the 1975 tornado did. It was a very interesting experience, though.

  4. I remember the Tornado of 1988 pretty well and I was only 8 years old. I lived in Hanscom Park neighborhood in South Omaha. The sky had turned an awful shade of green/gray and the air was really soupy. It made it hard to breathe. I was outside playing with friends when my dad called me into the house as the storm approached. We lost a lot of trees that day. The entire tops of them were twisted clean off. The Purina Dog Food plant that used to be on 24th and Vinton Street next to what used to be Baker’s (now No Frills) was clipped by the tornado and the towers on top of it were ripped right off and tossed into the parking lot like a piece of Erector Set. I remember when the storm went through, our house actually shook and it left a huge crack in our wall in our living room. We thought for sure the tornado had touched down nearby, but it just floated over the top of everything and later touched down in Council Bluffs. I remember being deathly afraid of the way the house shook. We didn’t have power for days afterward. It was definitely a defining moment in my life, having grown up slightly obsessed with storms anyway, having heard about the tornado of ’75 growing up, and having grown up in Omaha where storms are pretty regular. We were lucky that day. Council Bluffs, not so much. But I’ve always taken the weather very seriously since this experience. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and memories of this day. It’s really hard to find anything about this storm. There used to be a book available about the Council Bluffs Tornado. The Non Pareil put it out, I think. The Omaha Public Library had it for a while but I don’t know if they still do or not.

    • Thanks for your comment. I am very interested in others who experienced the Tornado of 1988, and their stories are pretty similar to yours (and mine). I also remember the shredded trees and the power being out. You’re right, there’s not much written about it.

      BTW, just today I did a post on the Omaha tornado of 1975, the anniversary of which is today. Here it is. https://seanmunger.com/2014/05/06/omahas-great-cataclysm-the-tornado-of-75/

      • Ryan Deane // May 4, 2015 at 5:45 pm //

        Wow! It really amazes me to see how many people actually do remember this tornado. I was looking back at this article and am amazed to see all the comments since my first visit (see first comment). I am especially amazed at Melissa’s recollection above. She lived not far from where I lived at time. In fact, the grocery store she mentioned (Baker’s/No Frills) is the one I returned from before the storm blew up. The Purina mill was just two blocks south of where I lived (25th & Bancroft) and she nailed it exactly. It did look like an erector set gone bad.

        This is the time of the year when memories of “the other tornado” start flashing back, especially this year. Wednesday, May 6th, marks the 40th anniversary of Omaha’s 1975 tornado. There is an incredible amount of coverage this week on local television news and in the newspaper (Omaha World-Herald). As a result, there are a lot more links to “Tornado of ’75” stories. Some of the footage I have never seen before. A great website to check out if you are interested is 1975omahatornado.org. It has a lot of info, photos, stories, etc. pertaining to this historic weather event. (There is still little or nothing regarding the 1988 tornado though.) Thanks for the articles and comments!

      • Ryan, thanks for coming back to read everybody’s comments! Yes, people do remember this–actually this is one of the most popular articles on my blog, which is amazing.

        I didn’t live in Omaha in 1975 but I certainly remember hearing about that big storm, especially on the 10th anniversary. I also did an article on that disaster, here: https://seanmunger.com/2014/05/06/omahas-great-cataclysm-the-tornado-of-75/

  5. You lived on Izard St.? I lived on Charles St in Omaha only few blocks away! Wow small world. Yea I remember the tornado in 1988. The comment that “Megan” posted above is pretty much like what I remember. Was also in the 75 storm but too young to remember it. Wow amazing, never met anyone outside of O who remember the storm of 1988. Thanks for this post really cool.

  6. Just read your writeup on the 75 tornado. Very good. Omaha has a real interesting weather history. You should do one on the Blizzard of 75. That was a big event to.

    • Thanks so much! In fact I may do an article on that if I can find some good source material. I might wait for the anniversary, it would make a good “today in history” article.

  7. A confrontation with any force of nature would be frightening. Their unpredictability is what scares me most !

    • Indeed! The storms in Omaha are very unpredictable during the summer. This one blew up in like an hour, as I recall. Certainly changed the whole course of the day very suddenly.

  8. I was on 90th and Dodge, attending U of N Omaha & living with my folks (who were on vacation in Hawaii on July 15th, 1988), so it was just me and my yellow lab Chamois in the house when the sirens went off. A bit too “Wizard Of Oz” for my tastes, thank you. Being a lifelong Californian/Oregonian, I had never been in anything like that. I agree with your perception of time slowing down. Almost 27 years later now and I remember that day feeling like it lasted 72 hrs. and not 24. And I remember it quite crisply and have also written about the experience, which for me was completely terrifying. When “Twister” came out years later and I saw it with friends back in Oregon, I left the theater shaking. Total PTSD. I thought there were fatalities in Council Bluffs? It was a “Tornado Party” BBQ and when it touched down and blammo? Or were they just horribly injured? Thanks for posting this, BTW. Well written.

  9. OPL still has copies of the book about the 1988 tornado for anyone who may be interested: https://omaha.bibliocommons.com/item/show/1292032060_tornado_hits_council_bluffs,_iowa#

8 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Ruminations: is there another world that’s closer than we think? | www.seanmunger.com
  2. 8-8-88: Lights on at Wrigley Field! [cool retro video] | www.seanmunger.com
  3. Omaha’s great cataclysm: the Tornado of ’75. | www.seanmunger.com
  4. Boston, one last time around: A final batch of photos from my trip. | www.seanmunger.com
  5. The sky’s winter rage: The Great Blizzard of 1975 in Omaha (and elsewhere). | www.seanmunger.com
  6. The strangest Christmas: My experiences in the great Northwest snowstorm of 2008. [Part I] | www.seanmunger.com
  7. Episode 3 of “The Valley of Forever” podcast, “The Tornado of 4:21,” has arrived! – www.seanmunger.com
  8. The “Curse” broken: my own dubious history with the Chicago Cubs. – www.seanmunger.com

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: