On this day 39 years ago, May 6, 1975, a Force 4 tornado struck the heart of the city of Omaha, Nebraska. It killed three people and wrought $300 to $500 million in damage, shattering 287 homes. I did not live in Omaha then but when my family first moved to that area a few years later, the memories of the Tornado of ’75 were still very fresh in many people’s minds. It’s one of the most important events in the recent history of the city and even now, nearly 40 years later, it remains the great storm to which all others are compared.
Omaha certainly is tornado country, but early May is pretty early in the season for heavy tornado weather. Tuesday, May 6, was an abnormally warm and humid day, and weather stations across the Midwest began tracking a large mass of cooler air moving across the region in the late morning. Some local residents recall “swirling breezes” that day, which are harbingers of tornado weather. Severe thunderstorms and tornadoes were reported in western Nebraska and parts of South Dakota beginning in the early afternoon. Meteorologists in Omaha and Kansas City knew something big was coming. Indeed, between 1 and 2PM the sky to the west grew ominously dark. Rain and high winds began lashing the metropolitan area close to 3:00 PM. By now warnings of impending tornadoes were flashing all over local television channels and beeping across radio frequencies. This was the biggest storm to hit the area, by some reckonings, since 1913.
This video of the damage from the 1975 tornado was taken by Dan Vogal at about North 70th Avenue. I used to live in this neighborhood.
The first twisters were spotted at 4:14 PM in the suburbs to the west of Omaha proper. The city ground to a virtual halt. The Mutual of Omaha insurance company, which occupied a large building in the center of town, refused to let their employees leave the building. Traffic crawled to a bare trickle. In researching this article I came across fascinating reports of the last eerie minutes before the disaster struck. There was a strange stillness to the air; birds had stopped chirping. Indoor pets, even fish, were reportedly acting strangely. Omaha was girded for a siege.
The big one–the funnel that did most of the damage–crawled down out of the sky at 4:29 PM. It tore through parts of the suburbs and the western districts of Omaha, and made matchsticks of a neighborhood called Westgate. At 84th and L Street it notoriously shattered a restaurant called Grandmother’s, then owned by a businessman named Bob Kerrey, who would later be elected Senator and ran unsuccessfully for President in 1992. The twister struck Bergan-Mercy Hospital just after patients were evacuated out of harm’s way. Given the damage done, it’s remarkable only three people lost their lives. When I lived in Omaha in the 1980s, more than once I heard a story that one of the victims was impaled by a two-by-four, but I was unable to confirm that; it may be an urban legend.
At 4:58 the destructive tornado finally dissipated. It had carved a path of destruction across 9 miles of the city, going right over Dodge Street, Omaha’s main commercial artery. Power was out in most places and as soon as the rain and wind receded, anarchy took over. Nebraska Governor Exon called in National Guard troops to patrol the streets and stop looting. By the next day the city was under control and the long process of rebuilding and recovery began. The time of day at which it happened–very late afternoon–and the strenuous warnings of authorities for people to take cover clearly saved many lives. Had the timing of the storm been different or had it struck more suddenly, the death toll could have spiraled into the hundreds.
The Westgate neighborhood was one of several utterly leveled by the storm. Insurance claims from the disaster topped $1 billion. Yes, billion, with a B.
The Tornado of ’75 was not the only environmental disaster Omaha had been coping with that year. A colossal blizzard buried the city back in January. Nor was the Omaha tornado the only destructive manifestation. The storm that spawned it raked across the Southeast over the next two days, spawning a total of 36 twisters. In magnitude and damage it remains one of the costliest tornado outbreaks in American history.
I did not experience the 1975 storm. I was there, however, for the 1988 tornado, which is the equivalent disaster in the history of Council Bluffs, the smaller city across the river from Omaha on the Iowa side. The 1988 tornado was one of the strangest experiences of my life. Having lived through it I can fully appreciate how strange and frightening Omaha’s “big one” must have been. I no longer live in tornado country, but seeing with your own eyes the awesome forces that create these storms is an experience you will never forget.
There is a really great article on the 1975 storm, much more in-depth than what I presented in this article, here.