March 23, Eastern Sunday, 1913, dawned a beautiful day in eastern Nebraska. But towards evening the sky began to darken and threaten rain, but none fell. The day changed unexpectedly as the first tornado touched ground at 5:20 pm near Craig, Nebraska, destroying a dozen houses. Ten minutes later another tornado hit Yutan. As it made its way through the town 20 people were killed and 40 homes destroyed. To the south, another tornado leveled the village of Berlin and another dozen people were killed.
The worst tornado of the day began a few miles outside Omaha. In Ralston, outside the city, the tornado killed eight people and tore up the business district. Growing in size as it went, it cut a quarter mile wide path as it made its way toward Omaha. People had little warning, and few were able to take shelter before the storm hit. It cut through the city, spreading death and destruction on either side. 100 people were killed and hundreds more were injured. 2,000 buildings were destroyed. The area hit worst was along North 24th and Lake Streets. One building containing a group of African Americans meeting for Easter Sunday was leveled, injuring two dozen. A streetcar was moving down 24th in the path of the tornado, and although it badly twisted, the quick thinking of the operator, Ord Hensley, led to all of the passengers to make their escape. Charles Williams, a passenger, said of the experience:
Looking up the street we saw the cyclone coming. It looked to me like a big, white balloon. Of course everybody was scared and a number of the women passengers screamed.
Shouting, ‘Everybody keep cool and lie in the center of the car,’ Conductor Hensley set the example and everybody did as he said. In an instant every bit of glass in the car was shattered and boards and other debris were hurled against the car’s side. Many heavy boards came through the windows. One heavy beam came in a window and one side and was left there, sticking through a window on the other side.
In a brief glimpse I had of the approaching tornado, I could see houses tumbling and trees being torn up. After the tornado passed we left the car, being careful to avoid the live wires, which was another suggestion of the conductor’s, and helped in the rescue work.1
Today tornadoes are measured on the Fujita scale. It was introduced over half a century later, based on eyewitness accounts many of the tornadoes that hit the Midwest are categorized as F-4. Very rare, they have wind speeds over 200 mph. They cause devastating damage, leveling even well built houses, blowing weaker structures across the ground. With winds this speed cars can be thrown around, and objects can be picked up by the wind large enough to prove serious missiles. These tornadoes were the deadliest in Nebraska’s history, and a very exceptional occurrence as they all struck in the same storm.
Although the death toll was severe, there were also miraculous stories of survival. One five-month old baby was picked up by the wind and blown out the window. Her mother in the house was killed, but she was found alive, a quarter mile away. In the six block wide swath cut by the cyclone, some houses were ripped to bits while the neighbor’s was unscathed.
Even the tornadoes were soon gone, the sufferings of the people of Omaha were just beginning. After the fierce wind storms rain and snow fell, causing great suffering among the many homeless families. Gas lines were broken in the wreckage and fires sprang up, causing even more damage. The city sprang to action to help those who were injured. The police had their hands full trying to prevent looting, and citizens worked through the night to pull the wounded from the wreckage. Militia and soldiers arrived to aid in the rescue and stand guard. Marked was the conduct of the girls working the telephone switchboards. Although covered in blood from injuries, they continued to work, keeping the town’s communication open.
Many were shocked by this great disaster, but the nation would be rocked yet again, just two days later, with the Great Dayton Flood.
1 Story of the Great Flood and Cyclone Disasters: America’s Greatest Calamity edt. Thomas H. Russell (Robt. O. Law Co., 1913) p. 299.