In Omaha, it could have been much worse -
Published Monday, April 16, 2012 at 1:00 am / Updated at 2:07 am
In Omaha, it could have been much worse

Showcase: See storm and damage photos from Nebraska and Iowa.

Video: Click here to see the storm roll into Lincoln, a tree fall on a house in Daykin, Neb., and an interview with a man who talks of riding out the storm just south of Talmage, Neb.

* * *

An appropriate theme for Sunday sermons would have been thankfulness.

After unprecedented warnings of catastrophic tornadoes, the damage was less than feared and the number of deaths across the country appeared limited to five people.

Not to diminish those losses, but Saturday was a day that had promised deadlier-than-normal tornadoes throughout the nation's midsection.

The tornadoes did occur. The initial reports totaled more than 120, a number that is dropping as meteorologists eliminate duplicate reports.

The tornadoes brushed the outskirts of metropolitan areas and bypassed most small towns as they traveled the sparsely populated Great Plains.

In the Omaha and Lincoln areas, a daytime thunderstorm calmed the atmosphere and blocked tornadoes from forming.

Tornado experts hope people don't take the wrong lesson from Saturday's experience and disregard future warnings. Tornado season in Nebraska and Iowa is still in its early weeks and doesn't peak until May and June.

“This is what troubles me most about (Saturday) night, that people will become complacent,” said Ken Dewey, a climatologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and one of the state's leading authorities on tornadoes.

“No one is criticizing in Kansas and Oklahoma,” he said, referring to tornadoes Saturday that raked across Kansas and that left five dead in Oklahoma.

Anyone in the Omaha area who dismissed Saturday's “no-show tornadoes” as another blown forecast need look no further than the example of Joplin, Mo.

“The risk going into Saturday for Omaha was much greater than the risk that Joplin faced on the morning that their community was devastated,” said Russell Schneider, director of the U.S. Storm Prediction Center, which develops large-scale severe weather forecasts for the National Weather Service. “We should count our blessings and good fortunes.”

About 160 people died in Joplin last year, and $2 billion in damage is estimated to have occurred.

In the Omaha, Lincoln and Council Bluffs areas, where a total of more than 1 million people live, Saturday morning dawned with an amped-up atmosphere primed to fire up tornadoes.

But the unexpected thunderstorm rolled in, said Van DeWald, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Valley.

“This was really close,” DeWald said.

How close?

Try roughly 40 miles.

That's how close the worst of the tornadoes got before they encountered the calming effect of eastern Nebraska's afternoon rain. That's where the storm system spit out the tornado that hit Thurman, Iowa.

Forecasters had expected that Saturday morning's clouds would lift and skies would clear in Lincoln and Omaha, enough so that the Huskers' spring game could be played at Memorial Stadium. Instead, a large storm moved in, changing everything.

That individual storm was harder to predict than the overall tornado threat, Schneider said.

Still, tornadoes did try to form in the Lincoln and Omaha areas, and at the deadliest time, late at night when most people were asleep, Dewey said.

A funnel was spotted near Lincoln's airport near midnight.

At about the same time, a potent storm cell moved through Douglas and Sarpy Counties. Instead of producing a tornado, it unleashed torrents of rain.

Indeed, not long afterward, a tornado did touch down on the east side of Council Bluffs, causing tree damage in the Westfair area.

What shouldn't be lost on the public, these experts said, is just how unusual Saturday was.

One to two times a year, typically, conditions come together in the Great Plains to create the threat that existed Saturday, Schneider said.

On a day like Saturday, those in the highest-risk area had a three in 10 chance of being within 25 miles of a tornado. Saturday, that area included eastern Nebraska southward to nearly the Texas border.

The last time such a large area of Nebraska was at such high risk was May 22, 2004, Dewey said. That day about 60 tornadoes struck the state, including one of the widest tornadoes ever recorded anywhere — the mile-wide monster that demolished Hallam, Neb., claiming one life.

Ultimately, it may never be known how powerful Saturday's tornadoes were. Because most of them traveled the relatively bare ground of the Plains, there was little for them to demolish, which provides the clues needed to rate tornadoes.

“There are a lot of small towns whose names will largely remain anonymous because these tornadoes went a few miles north or south of them,” Schneider said.

Contact the writer:

Storm rolls into Lincoln

Tree damages home in Daykin, Neb.

Man rides out storm south of Talmage, Neb.

Contact the writer: Nancy Gaarder    |   402-444-1102    |  

Nancy writes about weather, including a blog, Nancy's Almanac. She enjoys explaining the science behind weather and making weather stories relevant in daily life.

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