Tomorrow marks the anniversary of the deadliest tornado outbreak in Nebraska history. On March 23, 1913, seven tornadoes struck eastern Nebraska, ripping through Omaha and several smaller towns. Hundreds were killed, injured or left homeless. Tonight, NET News tells the tragic and inspirational stories from this disaster in a new television documentary called “Devil Clouds: Tornadoes Strike Nebraska.” The one hour program premieres at 7 p.m. CT on NET1 and NET-HD. In today’s Signature Story, Ariana Brocious of NET News talks with producer Mike Tobias about the tornadoes, the aftermath and the documentary.
The NET News television documentary “Devil Clouds: Tornadoes Strike Nebraska” premieres tonight (Friday, March 22) 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, video extras and links to additional information.
NET News Senior Producer Mike Tobias scans images for the "Devil Clouds" project at the Otoe County Museum.
NET videographers Dave Barry (L) and Ray Meints (R) shooting for the documentary. Meints was the primary videographer/editor for the project.
ARIANA BROCIOUS, NET NEWS: What gave you the idea to produce a documentary about these tornadoes?
MIKE TOBIAS, NET NEWS SENIOR PRODUCER/REPORTER: I first became aware of the event a few years ago and there were a few things about it that were just fascinating. First of all, it’s incredibly well-documented. There are lots and lots of pictures. There are lots of accounts in newspapers and letters and things that people wrote at the time. It’s full of fantastic people stories. Stories of survivors. Stories of people who helped with relief. Just great characters who are involved in this. It’s also just a really good opportunity for us to use this event as a window to look into the lives of 1913 Nebraska and 1913 Nebraskanshow they lived, how they functioned, the sorts of things that were available to help them to recover after an event like this.
BROCIOUS: I think it’s interesting that at the time, the Weather Bureau banned the use of the word tornado because they were worried it would cause people to panic.
TOBIAS: Yes, that was an odd thing that we discovered. The Weather Bureau was the precursor to the National Weather Service, and at the time, they were a function of the Department of Agriculture. There was this belief apparently that went back even years before that that if you talked about tornadoes people would panic. The reality is there was some research at the time, but very little capacity for forecasting or warning or anything of that sort.
BROCIOUS: These tornadoes were incredibly destructive to lives and property in several cities and yet, there are also some really miraculous stories of survival. I’m wondering how you found some of those stories like the little girl who was saved by her dress.
TOBIAS: A lot of them were in newspapers. It’s really amazing the volume and depth of information. In Omaha at the time, I think there were maybe four major newspapers. The next day, there were pages and pages of these first-person accounts of things like the baby from the Child Savings Institute, which was an orphanage at the time in Omaha. Here this horrific tornado literally pulled some of these babies from their cribs and for one, miraculously, her dress snagged and the nurse was able to pull her back inside. Now the downside to all this information that we found is that there’s a lot of inaccurate information floating around in some of these accounts. Even in the newspapers, you would see things one day in a newspaper about dozens of people being killed in a movie theater and then by two days later, no one was killed in the same movie theater.
BROCIOUS: Your reporting on this event also gives a picture of Nebraska culture a century ago, that sort of pioneering spirit. After the tornadoes, the mayor of Omaha declined help from President Woodrow Wilson among others and the town started cleaning up and rebuilding almost immediately. Was that unusual given the resources they had at that time?
TOBIAS: I think there was a certain kind of independent attitude and from some of the historians we talked to this was the way people functioned at the time. You had to take care of yourself. You had to do things. In talking about the mayor of Omaha, he was a mayor whose nickname was Cowboy Jim Dahlman, and he was a little bit of a different sort. This telegram came in from President Wilson saying, “I heard about the devastation. What can we do to help?” Between the mayor and something called the Commercial Club, which was sort of the Chamber of Commerce at the time, their initial reaction was, “we don’t really want people around the country to know that Omaha is in big trouble because that might hurt our business. So let’s try to downplay it.” So they said, “no we don’t need any help, we’ll be fine.” I think it didn’t take long for him to get out and really see the level of devastation and say, “okay, I think we need to accept some outside aid.”
BROCIOUS: Speaking of business, the tornadoes wiped out entire business districts in some towns and yet they were surprisingly good for other businesses like insurance companies who jumped on the opportunity even the day right after the storms to sell tornado insurance. They also boosted the construction industry, local photographers, and tourism of people that just came to see the destruction.
TOBIAS: Especially the tornado insurance. Very few people had tornado insurance at the time and you look at the newspapers the next morning, keeping in mind that these tornadoes hit late on a Sunday afternoon, and the next morning there are ads for tornado insurance in newspapers. One of the oddest things like this that we saw was in one of the newspapers, where someone ran an ad offering a free excursion to go out and look at irrigated farmland in California. The ad said something like, “no earthquakes, no tornadoes, so you could get away from this horrific place where there are all these tornadoes and get this nice safe farmland in California.” So definitely, there was money to be made in the aftermath of the tornadoes.