It was a day like no other in Nebraska’s history. On March 23, 1913, Easter Sunday, seven tornadoes struck eastern Nebraska, ripping through Omaha and several smaller towns. Hundreds were killed, injured or left homeless. A century later, NET News tells the tragic and inspirational stories from this disaster in a reporting project called “Devil Clouds: Tornadoes Strike Nebraska,” including this "Best of 2013" Signature Story which originally aired in March.
More on the 1913 Easter tornadoes can be found on the web site for the "Devil Clouds" Tornadoes Strike Nebraska" project, netNebraska.org/devilclouds. This includes streaming video of the one hour television documentary, photo galleries, a timeline of the deadly day and video extras.
“Everyone in town knew at least one or two people who were killed,” said Erin Hauser, curator of the Saunders County Museum. “In fact, a lot of the people in town were related to one or two of the people who had been killed.”
The tornado destroyed 40 homes, several churches and the town’s water tower. Dozens were injured and 19 people in and around Yutan were killed. Further south, another tornado hit the village of Berlin, now called Otoe. A couple hundred people lived here. Longtime Otoe resident Willard Ropers recounted the story of one family who saw the tornado coming.
“They were headed for a cave in their yard and they never made it,” Ropers said. “There were four of them killed.”
The tornado leveled Berlin, leaving parts of the bank, a few houses and a church. A dozen people were killed in or around the town. The most devastating tornado that day started outside Ralston, at the time a rural village sitting a few miles from Omaha . It killed eight people and destroyed Ralston’s growing business district, including furniture and stove factories. The tornado then roared northeast, cutting a quarter mile wide swath of death and destruction through Omaha. Hardest hit was the densely populated 24thand Lake streets area. Solomon Wartzel, his wife and five kids died here in their bakery. Across the street was the Idlewild Pool Hall, a popular gathering place for African-Americans. Twenty-five people died in the pool hall.
“It was pretty bad,” said Travis Sing, historian and author of “Omaha’s Easter Tornado of 1913.” “It wasn’t only hit by the tornado but the gas lines ruptured and it caught on fire.”
The tornado killed nearly 100 people in Omaha. Hundreds more were injured and as many as 2,000 houses and buildings were destroyed. By nightfall, seven tornadoes had struck eastern Nebraska, most continuing into Iowa. The Fujita Scale that registers the strength of tornadoes didn’t exist at the time, but researchers would later classify four of the Easter Sunday tornadoes as F-4s, uncommon monsters with winds greater than 200 miles an hour. The tornadoes killed 168 people in Nebraska and Iowa, mostly in Nebraska. The Omaha, Yutan and Berlin tornadoes, all F-4s, today rank as the three deadliest in Nebraska history. Damage from the 1913 tornadoes was estimated at $10 million, which would be more than $200 million today.
“The number of people that got killed, the fact that you have seven tornadoes in a fairly close area like that, fairly long track tornadoes, made it very significant,” said Brian Smith, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Valley.
Amidst the tragedy were stories of miraculous survival. At an orphanage in Omaha, winds pulled a three-month-old from her bed. But her dress snagged on a window and a nurse was able to pull the dangling girl back inside. In Berlin, Emma Brandt and her five-month-old daughter Mabel didn’t make it into the storm cellar in time. Emma was killed. Mabel was later found alive a quarter mile away from the homestead.
“The story goes that the person who found her was either a neighbor or a hired man and that he thought it was just a rolled-up batch of mud,” said Ron Witt of Omaha. “It actually turned out to be my mother.”
The hours and days that followed the tornadoes brought heroes to the devastated communities. Workers digging through rubble in search of survivors. Volunteers staffing aid stations and turning out by the thousands to help with clean-up. Donations of money, food, clothing and other items from near and far.
There were also villains. Looters, and so-called “dope fiends” taking advantage of relief efforts.
Onlookers came by the trainload to see the damage. Professional photographers came to take hundreds of pictures, many of which would be quickly turned into penny postcards. From these images, though, you also see Nebraskans who almost immediately began rebuilding their homes and lives.
“I think the remarkable thing is how quickly Omaha did recover and move on about its business,” said Harl Dalstrom, author and retired University of Nebraska at Omaha history professor. “I suspect that the same generalization would hold true for the rest of the area of eastern Nebraska and western Iowa that was impacted.”
“I think it is an American story,” added Joni Fogarty, an Omaha historian who gives presentations on the Omaha tornado. “Because it speaks so deeply to who an American is, and we’re all in this together and we’re going to rebuild, and we’re going to help each other.”