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.