"Devil Clouds: Tornadoes Strike Nebraska" - Tornado forecasting and preparedness, then and now

March 20, 2013, 9:19 a.m. ·

A table with six experts at the weather bureau discussing.

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The deadliest tornado outbreak in Nebraska history occurred a century ago on March 23, 1913. More than 100 Nebraskans died, many others were injured. Those in the path of the storm had little warning of what was coming. In today’s Signature Story, Mike Tobias reports on tornado forecasting and preparedness, then and now. The story is part of the NET News reporting project called “Devil Clouds: Tornadoes Strike Nebraska,” which includes a one hour television documentary airing Friday on NET1 and NET-HD.

The NET News television documentary “Devil Clouds: Tornadoes Strike Nebraska” premieres this Friday at 7 p.m. CT on NET1 and NET-HD. Much more on the 1913 Easter tornadoes can be found at netNebraska.org/devilclouds. This includes pictures, a timeline of the deadly day and video extras.


CLICK HERE to see what weather forecasting looked like a century ago.

The State Emergency Operations Center in Lincoln is a communications and information gathering command center-in-waiting. It has designated computer stations for a couple dozen key agencies like the National Guard, State Patrol and Red Cross, all facing large monitors in the front of the room.

Al Berndt runs day-to-day operations for the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency. Last summer Emergency Operations Center was busy, when NEMA was dealing with wildfires in northern and western Nebraska. It could be busy again with the start of Nebraska’s tornado season.

“If we get a significant outbreak where a town or a city has been struck, then of course we’re able to ramp up the Emergency Operation Center to respond to that,” Berndt says.

It’s a proactive approach to disaster preparedness that starts with close monitoring of conditions as soon as tornadoes are a possibility.

The National Weather Service office in Valley is a room full of technology and highly trained meteorologists like Brian Smith, the office’s warning coordination meteorologist. Smith says here they can identify the possibility of severe weather, like tornadoes, days ahead of time.

“Then, on that morning before, we probably have a very good idea of where it was going to occur and what time it might occur and so forth,” Smith says.

It’s all a far cry from what existed on March 23, 1913, the day of the worst tornado outbreak in Nebraska history. In the span of two hours a storm system spawned seven tornadoes, four of which would later be classified as monster F-4 tornadoes with winds greater than 200 miles an hour. (The Fujita Scale, which rates the intensity of tornadoes, was developed in the 1970s.) With little warning these tornadoes ripped through Omaha and several small towns, including Ralston, Yutan and Otoe, called Berlin at the time.

In 1913, the U.S. Department of Agriculture was in charge of the Weather Bureau, the predecessor of today’s National Weather Service. It had offices throughout the country. It collected weather data, made maps and issued forecasts, but without the speed and detail of today. Smith says equipment was crude.

“They still had barometers,” Smith says. “They had what we call a barograph, which has a pen on it you can actually see the pressure trace over time of what’s happening, and thermometers, thermographs. But a lot of those were not run by electricity. They were run by a clock mechanism that you wind up.”

There had been some tornado prediction research. But what you won’t find in 1913 is much use of the word “tornado.” It was banned from official use in the late 1880s.

“The Weather Bureau really didn’t want anybody to use the word tornado for fear that people would panic,” Smith adds.

So the official Weather Bureau map for March 23, 1913, warned only of unsettled weather with rain. Once storms started, there was no mass communication of tornado watches and warnings, and no warning sirens in communities. Some people may have received a little advance warning from phone calls.

“It would be mainly people sighting it and then trying to move to a place of safety,” Smith says.

Today Nebraskans receive alerts about tornadoes from a variety of sources, including news media and county level agencies operating from comprehensive emergency management plans developed with the help of NEMA. Soon you could get text messages sent directly to your cell phone, thanks to something called the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS). Developed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Nebraska hopes to begin using IPAWS this summer. Al Berndt of NEMA says it will allow select information to be pushed out at the county level.

“A good example would be, say Lancaster County,” Berndt says. “It’s been identified through law enforcement, fire, emergency management, that in a portion of northern Lancaster County there’s a potential for a significant event, or information that needs to be targeted out. They can go in and through GIS technologies put that information out and basically hit every cell phone that’s within range of those cell phone towers.”

There’s no doubt that these advancements in forecasting and warning save lives. The evidence? In 1975, an F-4 tornado ripped through Ralston and Omaha. This tornado was more devastating than the 1913 Ralston and Omaha F-4 tornado, in terms of the adjusted dollar amount of the damage. But only three people died in 1975 and 101 died in 1913.