BLACK TUESDAY: May 6, 1975 - Written By: Jeff Hanusa, Omaha Native
I met Jeff via email after he contacted me, asking if he may contribute to the site. Here is Jeff's contribution.
Nearly a year after Elvis Presley sold-out performances in his "Tornado Over Omaha" concert tour of June 1974, a real-life tornado – of F4 strength on the Fujita Scale – tore through Nebraska’s largest city, Omaha, on the spring afternoon of May 6, 1975. The connection with Elvis is purely coincidental, and fun irony to note, yet the day was no laughing matter. It is a day that some call "Black Tuesday" in Omaha, and appropriately so; the aftermath of the maxi, three-tailed twister was horrendous. Three people were killed, and almost 300 were injured. Almost 2,500 residential units, as well as 180 businesses, were destroyed or damaged. In addition, scores of public, or semi-public, buildings and facilities were damaged or destroyed, along with hundreds of automobiles – all within a short period of twenty-three minutes.
The severity of the May 1975 storm is definitely worth remembering: Nationally, it was an event calculated as the "Costliest Tornado to Hit a Major American City" in history, even more damaging then the severe Xenia, Ohio tornado of 1974, the powerful Lubbock and Wichita Falls, Texas tornadoes of 1971 and ’74, and Topeka, Kansas tornado of 1966. Omaha’s 1975 tornado managed to hold that impressive title for nearly a quarter of a century, now placed only second behind a record-breaking, F5 twister that ravaged Oklahoma City area suburbs on May 3, 1999.
Despite the fact that tornadoes are nature’s definite apex storm – in terms of sheer violence, and most unpredictable phenomenon, Omaha was prepared for the severe ’75 blow, in what some experts called an "overdue storm." Although the city’s last major tornado event was sixty-two years in the past – Easter Sunday, March 23, 1913 – and long forgotten on the city’s conscience, 1975 was a year in Omaha that refined the local’s weather senses. In January, a legendary blizzard struck the city, accompanied by howling 60-mph winds and up to 16-inches of snow in some places. The city was paralyzed for days and several deaths occurred. In addition to the great winter gale, the city was caught off-guard on March 27th, when a patch of southwest Omaha – specifically the Stonybrook area of Millard – experienced a blow from a small, unexpected tornado. By the time the sirens were sounded, the funnel had lifted, and left a trail of damage and tears twenty minutes earlier. It was again a similar story, seven years earlier in August 1968, when a hailstorm and twister did $1.5 million dollars in damage to the Bel Air area, near 120th and Center. Thus, when the National Weather Service posted the first weather watches on Tuesday, May 6th, amidst glorious sunshine and gentle breezes, Omahans were not deceived. Midlanders are full aware that the very elements that make the spring day feel benign – sunshine, warm temperatures, buoyant air, swirling breezes – are some of the same key ingredients that factor into a creation not so benign: The mighty tornado.
Hundreds of miles south in Kansas City, Missouri, the offices of the National Weather Service watched Nebraska on May 6th with its great "hawk eye", mapping the advance of a cold front and squall line moving across the state that day. The air was abnormally warm and humid, and cold air was quickly sliding over the region – a classic scenario for a severe weather outbreak. A tornado watch was posted for much of the state during the noon hour, including areas of the neighboring states of Kansas, South Dakota, and Missouri. As the day progressed, the National Weather Service revised the watch area and redrew the red lines; Nebraska and southern South Dakota only remained in the watch area. It was very clear: Conditions were ripening in the Cornhusker State.
By mid-afternoon, weather conditions heightened to an alarming status; as predicted, severe weather was in commencement. A tornado warning was issued for Northeastern Nebraska, roughly one hundred miles from Omaha. The storm system’s destructive chemistry was erupting in that state corner; funnels were reported along a squall line at Yankton, South Dakota, and down through the towns of Crofton, Magnet, Osmand, Pierce, and Winside in Nebraska. At least a dozen twisters touched down and created damage – one an F4 status. Pierce and Magnet were among the towns affected. Magnet was quoted as being "half gone."
To the south, tornado reports on television and radio filled the airwaves, and altered the hum of Omaha’s typical, nothing-usually-special Tuesday afternoon. Because of the media buzz, many locals gave a second glance at the blackening western sky. Weather radar continued to scan the atmosphere.
Five minutes after 2:00 p.m., red flags starting flying; the Omaha Forecast Office issued a severe thunderstorm warning. Omaha’s REACT team immediately reacted, positioning themselves at strategic points around the city. This organization, made up of amateur radio operators who are trained to recognize tornadoes, stands for "Radio Emergency Associated Citizens Team." With their assistance, the citizens of Omaha were definitely going to be prepared if a tornado threatened – a chance not given on deadly Easter Sunday 1913.
During the three o’clock hour, rain, thunder, lightning, wind, and large hail bombarded the Omaha area. At 3:03 p.m., a whistle was blown – a funnel spotted near Nehawka, a small town just south of Sarpy County in Nebraska. Just to the west and north, a second regional sighting was reported near Gretna and a protrusion in a black cloud over the town of Springfield was also brought to attention. Reports of funnel clouds were also coming out of Cass County, to the west. At 3:15 p.m., another severe thunderstorm warning was issued for Omaha, valid until 4:30 p.m. The television never seemed to stop beeping, flashing, that afternoon.
An intense hour passed by. By 4:00 p.m., a complex of severe thunderstorms had mushroomed – a massive cloud mass covering most of the extreme eastern portion of the state, from Kansas in the south, to South Dakota in the north. Two thunderstorm lines existed: One stretched diagonally from Columbus, Nebraska to ten to twenty miles west of Nebraska’s capitol city, Lincoln. The other: A line stretching from Beatrice, Nebraska, to Offutt Air Force Base in Bellevue, Nebraska, south of Omaha. All marching towards Iowa, the towering, exploded storm cells continued to drift north-eastward, imbedded with thunder and lightning, wind, large hail, and heavy precipitation. Omahans continued to wearily watch the skies.
Meanwhile, a strange calm was reported in a rural area of Iowa in the vicinity of the South Omaha Bridge, just south of Council Bluffs (a city directly across the Missouri River from Omaha). Within that airy hush, a black funnel percolated from the sky. The Council Bluffs Civil Defense sirens were sounded at approximately 4:07 p.m. Two minutes later, at 4:09 p.m., REACT observers spotted another funnel. This time, the peculiar cloud hung over northern Sarpy County in Nebraska, near the communities of Springfield, Papillion, and La Vista – all just south-southwest of Omaha. Seconds later, another sighting came from Check Point Indian in Nebraska, near Gretna. Between the scattered sightings and sirens, a look-this-way-no-that-way action was occurring. Five minutes later at 4:14 p.m., the National Weather Service issued a verbal tornado warning for the three-county Omaha area, although the sirens were not yet sounded.
With the media’s first word of warning, thousands of people heeded, by heading for their basements and small interior halls and closets. Traffic in Omaha reduced dramatically, and most industry and commerce came to a halt, as the storm’s "bear cage" section – an intense area of heavy rain and hail that often precedes a tornado – moved through town. Mutual of Omaha, the city’s famous insurance company, sealed up their offices downtown and would not allow the release of its employees. Ten miles west of downtown, officials at the Westroads Shopping Center also restricted people from leaving. The entire city remained poised, alert and ready.
Ten minutes passed. The sky above looked bizarre and threatening – swirls of black, grey, and green hues, a palette of tones that seemed to penetrate everything that afternoon. Beneath the great storm tower, a rotating wall cloud hung heavy over the landscape, indicating a grandiose circulation in the heavenly formation. An eerie, humid stillness had cast a spell over the land. Not a single branch – nor single leaf – moved. In those frozen trees, birds stopped chirping. Within residences, cats reportedly prowled restlessly and cried, and tropical fish burrowed into sand at the bottom of aquariums. On the ground, everything seemed hushed and frozen, quieted by this strange oppression. Contrastingly, in the far west, the sky looked warm and peaceful – clouds glowing gold in the sun, on the backside of the storm. But, the storm wasn’t over yet; above, the atmosphere continued to be filled with spooky animation – ghostly flashes of lightning and booming thunder, clouds caught in odd sprints of rapid motion, oozing with ominous colors: A true show of meteorological wonder.
A large funnel had sagged downward from the sky, like a ghostly, sinister, cloud-finger pointing downward, reaching for the earth. At first, the cloud danced over farmland just south of the Douglas-Sarpy County line, near the southwest edge of the great thunderstorm. The funnel was looming, intimidating – a black and menacing form. All eyes on it were filled with either awe or dread, or both – a frightening sight to many.
"Tornado – on the ground!"
At precisely 4:29 p.m., REACT observed a brief touchdown near132nd and Harrison, near the Millard Municipal Airport. The funnel skimmed the ground, kicking up dust, and causing minor damage. It then quickly ascended and remained suspended as it moved to the northeast, towards Ralston and more established areas of Omaha. The city’s sirens began to blare.
Near Ninety-sixth and ‘Q’, the funnel bore down again, this time for good. Splitting shade trees across the fair greens, the newborn twister whirled across the city-owned Applewood Golf Course, before leaping into Bay Meadows, a subdivision of newer, middle-class homes to the east. Like an angry lawnmower through blades of grass, the homes were shredded by the loud, destructive wind-machine without effort, all in the matter of seconds. Clocks in these first-destroyed homes reportedly stopped at 4:35 p.m. – a six minute period from the point the sirens first sounded. In this shattered community, stories were exchanged afterwards: One resident had arrived home just five minutes before the twister struck. With the sight of black clouds billowing down in the southwest, he grabbed his wife and two daughters and led the family downstairs just in time – their house lay destroyed only moments later. Another resident quoted from the remains of his shattered home: "I’ve never heard such a roar in my life…that cellar saved our lives."
At this point, a captain in Omaha’s fire division, Robert Rockwell, began to follow the tornado at Bay Meadows, giving movement, location, and description of damage via radio as the hellish drama unfolded – a brave, heroic man indeed.
Moving to the northwest into Ralston, the tornado bulldozed the city loudly, as it blasted homes and a dozen apartment complexes apart with incredible force. Ralston High School was grazed; the school’s new "A Wing" had portions of the roof torn away in the fierce winds. Many commercial businesses were damaged and destroyed in the area. At H & H Chevrolet, windows were smashed at the dealership, and new vehicles were damaged out in the parking lot. A row of five large truck trailers were overturned. Nearby, at Ralston Bank, windows blew out, the roof disintegrated, and money flew in all directions. The bank’s loan officer reported that a total of seventeen employees and four or five customers took shelter in the bank’s basement, as the institution blacked-out about thirty seconds before the storm hit. Nearby at a lounge, a young barmaid quoted seeing two funnels merge into one here, and then collide with the western side of the Wentworth Apartments, near Eighty-sixth and ‘Q.’ At Wentworth, cars and telephone poles were fiercely thrown about, brick walls crumbled, and steel poles were bent like rubber. The clubhouse, where many residents took cover, was severely damaged. Many upper-floor apartments were blasted away completely, leaving stark framing skeletons exposed and carpentry strewn everywhere. Some units were occupied when the twister hit, those within screaming as they saw roofs lift-off and "everything flying" within the snap of a finger. Throughout the vast complex, tattered curtains blew out of dark, gouged-out windows. Sliding glass doors were smashed and others ripped off their hinges. After the twister, one man said: "It was like being in a rainstorm of bottles, glass, plaster, and everything else." Another exclaimed: "I would have said all the airplanes from Offutt were coming." A mother and daughter at Wentworth had a close call when she reluctantly led her child upstairs to use the restroom just before the storm hit. Reaching the top of the staircase, the upstairs window revealed a twister approaching. They ducked back for cover immediately – just in time. In these same moments, another mother watched in terror from her nearby office as the twister ripped the roof off her townhouse unit. She fainted; her son and daughter were in there. Minutes later, the light-headed resident was helped home to find two cars sitting in her destroyed living room, but learned her children were safe! They had taken shelter in the basement with neighbors.
Near Eighty-fourth and ‘L’ Street, the funnel churned out of Ralston, moving more in a northward direction through sprawling industrial parks. Here, a local eyewitness reported looking down into Ralston Valley and counting seven funnels descending and ascending (scientifically, these seven funnels are defined as "multiple vortexes" – a sure sign of a very violent cyclone). To add to her surprise, she also noticed golfers spread flat on the ground, on a nearby course. Another local recalled seeing 17,000-pound tractors whirling in the sky as the tornado passed over, just moments before getting struck in the head by a piece of debris. Nearby, a complex of Little League baseball diamonds took a "strike of their own", before the tornado skimmed the Union Pacific Railroad and lifted over Interstate 80, causing some injuries on the twin ribbons of concrete. Right in these moments, an Omaha man reported to the World-Herald that he was driving south on Seventy-Second Street, nearing Interstate 80, when he saw the tornado coming with several others. He quotes: "As I neared the interstate, drivers were starting to panic. There was more of a danger of being hit by another car then the tornado. I was one of the first cars to get under the interstate bridge. By then, people were pouring out of their cars and were lying on the incline." The man estimated fifty people took shelter there – all survived.
Just north of the interstate, the twister struck again and continued to carry on its destructive scheme. This time, the middleclass neighborhood of Westgate met the malevolent entity. After the encounter, a wide path of wreckage instantly transformed the residential landscape – a scene described later as "bomb-like." Homes, once sitting divided and orderly, were ground together in grotesque heaps and piles. Streets were left unrecognizable, disorienting residents. Westgate Elementary School was nearly leveled, its grounds made ugly and torn like a war-zone scene. Ironically, the happy laughter of children had echoed there just hours earlier. Amidst the cries and sorrow of the neighborhood, miraculous testimonies were exchanged: A woman and her three children, sheltered in an interior closet, were nearly struck by a bed frame that shot through the house like a missile. Another resident and his two sons barely escaped death or severe injury, even from the safety of the basement. While most of their house was scattered to the winds, the rest crashed below ground, cracking the table they were under. "If we’d have been anywhere else in the basement, we’d be dead now," he said. Another resident claimed: "The tree helped saved us", referring to a maple tree in his front yard, with large branches that had stopped a great amount of debris from hitting his home.
Captain Robert Rockwell was still following the tornado; shouting minute-by-minute locations of the imposter, as it cut through town at a diagonal direction. His information was essential in warning the people ahead in its path and dispatching rescue units to the areas left in shambles. The police captain was about to gain a partner in the chase; the tornado, a second man on its tail: Twenty-three year-old Omaha Police patrolman, David Campbell. Campbell, driving westward on Interstate 80 near the Sixtieth Street Exit, saw the suspended black cloud: "I’ll never see anything like that again. It seemed to be moving out of the Millard area. It was really building up by the Howard Johnson Motel and starting north." He decided to assist Rockwell in the quest. At Seventy-Second Street, the patrolman exited the freeway –the tornado right before his eyes. Still, believing the storm was moving away from him, David Campbell bravely started north, realizing he was in for quite a close call: "As I turned off the interstate, it was right beside me, not a hundred feet at times. It seemed to lose power after the motel. Then it started to build again and ripped up Seventy-second, to my left, going north. It was funny, white on the outside, I guess that was the rain, there was an awful lot of it, and black stuff in the middle – the cone – lumber and stuff." As he drove further, power poles were flying at Campbell’s cruiser like gigantic daggers, but the patrolmen continued to follow the tornado –a deadly game of dodge ball. Electrical lines whipped about the vehicle like wiry serpents with hissing, sparking heads, and debris constantly rained down, denting the body and smashing the windshield of his cruiser.
After destroying Westgate, the tornado again lifted, loosing contact with the earth for a few hundred feet, and then descended again, now at Center Street, just west of Seventy-second. It roared into a cemetery, destroying a massive brick wall and tossing heavy, religious statues. Along with the stony saints, grand stately trees were raked over and toppled on the sacred burial grounds in a few blinks of an eye. Just to the north of the cemetery, the modern Archbishop Bergan-Mercy Hospital sat next in the path of the powerful gale.
Within these exact moments, a brave account executive, Thomas Beno, managed to shoot photos of the approaching tornado from his office near Seventy-first and Mercy Road. With a coworker holding Beno’s belt, the professional was able keep steady, and take clear photos, even in the midst of the howling winds. At that point, Beno said the funnel was not clearly defined, yet there was no dismissing it: "You could tell the extremes of what was in the air" he said. He further quotes to the Omaha World-Herald: "The wind was fierce. It was unreal the amount of debris in the air before and after. It was raining garbage with pieces of trees and hunks of living room in the air. The draft, the suction, the noise was incredible." In his estimate, the funnel appeared to move only 5 to 10 miles an hour; "Slow and methodical" he described it. "My God, look at Bergan-Mercy", Beno’s coworker shouted over the winds, as the tornado hit the hospital just to the west. Flashes of light around the twister puzzled them, yet it soon became very clear: "At first we thought it was lightning, but decided it came from power transformers as they were hit," Beno said. Just two pictures short of taking an entire roll of film, Beno joked that they took pictures "Long enough for [my coworker] to recite a whole Rosary." Their feat was well-rewarded; the photos landed on the front page of the Omaha World Herald, and their story printed. Across the country, Beno’s photos were used by the wire press, and he sold copies by the thousands.
At precisely 4:40 p.m., the tornado collided with Bergan-Mercy Hospital head-on. With atomic-like force, the large structure was hit broadside and dealt a frightening jolt – a maiming encounter. As the last staff and patients scrambled for cover inside the building, a crescendo of awful sounds were heard over the twister’s roar: breaking glass chiming loudly with each bursting window, furniture sent flying, interior doors being ripped from their hinges, and debris crashing through interior hallways. Outside of the medical center, automobiles and heavy metal beams were flicked around as if they were simply toys and toothpicks. The main building of the hospital – structurally designed with reinforced concrete for events such as this – stood up to the twister, but the adjacent rest home was mostly destroyed, a total of $5 million dollars in damage to the entire complex from the storm. Although there were injuries at the hospital, no deaths occurred. A timely, 30-minute evacuation of the 400 patients had saved many lives that afternoon. For this, Bergan-Mercy was commended.
The wind-demon moved north-northwest, pulling itself ever closer to Seventy-second Street. Ahead of it, heavy rain pelted the city, blinding some to the oncoming terror. Costly homes were damaged and destroyed along with the Omaha Elks Lodge, Glad Tidings Church, several businesses, and a number of apartment complexes. Hardly any existence here was spared. Ahead of the mammoth beast of wind, civilian chaos could be seen as people rushed out of its path and cars were speeding away with no lights functioning on the busy north-south artery.
The two Omaha patrolmen stuck close behind the tornado’s tail(s) – a mind-blowing experience. Though bullied by its power, and continually pelted with debris, the men stuck with their quest up Seventy-second Street. Second-by-second updates of the tornado’s location and movement were in dire need: This was a city emergency, if any!
Just to the east, 8,600 fans at Ak-Sar-Ben racetrack were disconcerted by nature’s agenda for the afternoon. The races had been stopped due to the warnings, and over the loud speaker, the crowd was ordered to take cover under the steel stands, just as the third race was to begin. Not all sought shelter at the track that afternoon; many remained outside to watch – mostly men, curious, wanting a glimpse of something. And, they got what they wanted: Over the hillside to the west, the tornado appeared. For those watching, it was quite a spectacle. The tornado was large, and two spinning funnels were reported in view from the track. Fortunately, the tornado(s) suddenly spun more northward, blocks from hitting the racetrack, sparing a great, catastrophic loss of life from possibly occurring. Within these brief moments at Ak-Sar-Ben, Robert Dunn, a resident of Lincoln and photographer for the Nebraska Racing Commission, stood outside and snapped photographs of the tornado as moved across the horizon. As the result of this bravery, some of the clearest pictures of this storm were captured, and later sold by the thousands. Immediately after the great show of savage nature had passed by, the horse races resumed – surprisingly.
The violent tornado continued to move straight north, nearing Pacific Street. It was here, nature exploded in a rage beyond human comprehension. Around the tornado, the air was a circus show of flying debris from ground to cloud – pieces of town yanked up, whirled around, and spit out in every direction in a moving orchestra of chaos. Wind bands spiraled together tighter and tighter as they neared the vortex, sucking anything loose inward toward the funnel, signifying the complex, whirlpool-vacuum wind structure that existed around the "black hole" low-pressure center. The cone had ballooned to be much wider at this point, with winds as loud as a jet engine. Wildly twisting and churning, like a giant pillar of dark smoke spinning from cloud to earth, the thunderhead’s malicious offspring continued to take the city by siege. It was an unearthly sight to anyone watching. There was nothing kind found in it – merciless, cruel, a heartless creation.
At Seventy-fifth and Pacific, a worker dashed for cover at the last moment – humbly driven down to the basement, after arrogantly concluding that nothing was going to happen that afternoon. The sirens were wailing outside, yet still, his radio broadcasted only tunes and no sort of tornado warning. He felt there was no need to worry. But, this roar – yes, a very discernable roar – was approaching outside. "Who would be flying a plane this low?" he wondered. He then looked outside. Debris – flying around! "I knew then it was no plane", he later told the World-Herald, and took for cover. The next few minutes were "indescribable" in his words, as the noisy tornado moved by just to the east, and its screaming winds enveloped the area.
Now miraculously, up until this moment, the twister had not yet been a killer. However, that status changed as the tornado crossed Pacific, centered on Seventy-third Street, ripping through multiple businesses, office buildings, and a bowling alley.
Along with the eyes at Ak-Sar-Ben, the patrolmen continued to be an eyewitness as the three-tailed twister bore down on Pacific, skipping back and forth across Seventy-second Street. David Campbell quotes: "It was awful at Pacific. The air was filled, cars were sailing about, the lines were flying. I thought I was going to be electrocuted, the wires were swirling about. Everything lit up blue for a hundred feet around."
Pamela Myers, a young 23-year-old waitress at El Matador Restaurant near Seventy-second and Pacific, had worked the morning shift with her younger sister, Veronica – also a waitress at the restaurant. The two girls’ mother had died years earlier, and Pamela had been put in charge to look after her sister. In late afternoon, she took Veronica home, instructing her to take cover with a friend if a tornado threatened. Around 4:30 p.m., Pamela drove back to the restaurant to work the evening shift, when the civil defense sirens started to blare loudly around her. She sought immediate shelter in the restroom, with other waitresses, as soon as she arrived. Moments later, the twister struck. Pamela Myers died and was the first victim in the Omaha tornado of 1975. Some speculate she could have survived the initial impact, but drowned by a broken water main, while pinned low in the wreckage.
With no remorse for the life it had just taken, the twister traveled on, continuing to paint a nightmarish trail of pictures in its wake. The Sidles Corporation, the West Omaha Post Office, Nebraska Furniture Mart, and a dozen other businesses were lined up like sitting ducks on the neon strip of Seventy-second. Most were severely damaged or destroyed in a few short – yet, seemingly lifelong – seconds. The employees took cover in shelters or under heavy furniture, and all lives were spared as the tornado passed over. A worker at Nebraska Furniture Mart described the experience: "It sounded like we were being bombed." At the post office, a mechanic stepped outside the building and saw the twister approaching. Immediately, he ran back inside and warned the eleven remaining employees to take cover – most diving to safety just in time. When the tornado hit, the mechanic quotes: "Big cases started flying around. Then it took the roof and the walls and everything around us…." Although most at the postal outlet received only cuts or bruises, two women-employees were nearly buried in concrete and bricks from a collapsed south wall, bringing near death to both. Eighty of the ninety postal vehicles at the Post Office were damaged.
Moments later, near 4:45 p.m., the tornado widened and the path of destruction became broader as the funnel crossed Dodge Street, Omaha’s busiest traffic artery. The path had grown to 600 yards wide and the destruction there was incredible. Ironically, assessments of the aftermath showed that the funnel’s fiercest concentration of energy was spent here, on the precise geographic center of town, as if the twister’s intention was to first injure, then "go for the heart."
Crossroads Shopping Center, on the northwest corner of Seventy-second and Dodge, escaped with minor damage as the twister steered just to the east. In the mall’s parking lot, a pair of Omaha teenagers, a young man and woman, were waiting-out a blinding downpour in a parked vehicle, when they heard a roar "like a freight train" approaching. Turning around, the young man saw the horrific funnel closing in on them, seemingly looming right over the Sears department store. He told the Omaha World-Herald: "It looked like it was coming down on top of my head. We decided it was time to stop waiting and start hiding," he said. They managed to take shelter in the basement of the Sears store, with other shoppers, until the tornado passed by. A single blown-out window and scattered plants were the only damage visible at Sears, and thankfully, the two teenagers could drive their car away from the spared mall.
Just east across Seventy-second Street, it was a much different scene: Wolf Brothers Western Store and the 400-room Downtowner Motor Inn, both located at Seventieth and Dodge, were completely leveled in mere seconds – eaten and swallowed into chunks of wreckage and spit into thousands of splinters strewn every direction. According to a story, a cowboy hat was blown from an automobile and traveled seven blocks to land in front of the demolished western store. At the Downtowner Motor Inn, one man had unknowingly "checked himself in" to disaster’s "Ground Zero" once again; he was also out in Los Angeles when the great earthquake of ’71 struck. He quotes after the experience: "The rumbling sound of that earthquake was exactly the same as the sound of this tornado." Also at the motel, a young chef tried to flee in his vehicle – much too late. The raging tempest didn’t allow him to leave the property. In seconds, the twisting winds threw the vehicle 500 feet back into the motel dining room. Tossed and torment by the vicious gusts, he was then sucked from his vehicle and thrown another seventy-five feet as if simply a rag doll – ultimately knocked unconscious. When he awoke, he found himself in the motel basement, where fellow co-workers had dragged him. He had to face painful fractures to his neck, back, and head. Yet, he was amazingly still alive to tell his story. The Downtowner Motor Inn became part of Omaha’s history that day – forever; it was never rebuilt.
Just to the north at Cass Street, the tornado inflicted heavy damage on the Omaha Community Playhouse with a drama show of its own type – of deviltry, that is. Next door, both the First United Methodist Church and Temple Israel Jewish Synagogue were mauled in the passing stampede. Remarkably, the steeple of the church stood strong and upright, while other high points of the roof were stripped away. Across the sprawling lawns of the worship centers, large trees were snapped in half – some with roots yanked entirely out of the earth. Those left standing were mutated into ragged forms; leaves stripped completely away, bare branches draped with twisted sheets of metal. One quoted after the twister: "One of the weirdest things was the trees, because the tornado broke them all off about the same level. It stripped the bark off, too, so you have all these stark white jagged trees pointed straight up."
Adjacent to the north, Lewis and Clark Junior High School took the next beating. A group of approximately fifty after-hour students and teachers – hunched low in the hallway between the auditorium and gym – were terrorized as classroom windows were loudly punched out and sections of the roof were peeled away. One teacher was injured. After its wicked works on the junior school, the tornado swung a sharp curve** to the northwest, plowed through homes to cross Seventy-second Street, and the tail repeated its same cruel purpose on Creighton Prep High School. Haven House, a retirement home just north of the school, was also damaged and many elderly sustained minor injuries.
** This sudden and unusual left "wobble" of the tornado tail, near Western Avenue, was later discussed and analyzed by several scientists, including the famous tornado scientist, Professor Fujita. Their conclusions were that rain created a lot of cold air, causing a fierce downdraft from the parent thunderstorm, swinging the tail of the tornado out in Omaha’s case, west. Also, Omaha’s 1975 tornado raised brows by taking an unusual straight-north path, compared to the usual southwest-to-northeast path twisters normally take. Experts suggest that Omaha’s ’75 tornado was apparently affected by upper air winds that were blowing southwesterly. Those winds helped steer the tornado from tracking a more-usual easterly course.
In this vicinity of North Seventy-second, just east of Creighton Prep, some of the worst residential damage took place, and horrible injuries occurred, even below ground. One woman, taking shelter in her basement with her husband and daughter, had her arm twisted and severed-off completely by flying and falling debris (later at the hospital, her gaping wound was found to be imbedded with pieces of shingles, bark, and pine needles). An airborne automobile wounded another woman, while hiding in her basement. Moments after the winds blew the home to pieces– leaving the basement exposed – the vehicle sailed into the pit of the cinderblock foundation, striking her in the head. In another basement nearby, a young boy was nearly abducted by the vacuum-effect of the twister. The house had disintegrated above, and the youngster was about to sail off with it. Fortunately, the boy’s older brother and a board managed to help hold him down until the howling blasts were over. These and other accounts show: Even below ground level, solid shelter must be taken in the event of a powerful tornado.
The cyclone continued to rage up Seventy-second Street. Just south of Blondo, it started to steer slightly to the northeast, sideswiping a Baker’s supermarket and strip center. In the storm’s passing, the supermarket’s large, rooftop sign was ripped off its perch and deposited across the parking lot, tattered and torn, landing upside down. Afterwards, the store had the only working phone in the vicinity, and the lines grew long. Here, a local laundry mat was also destroyed; nothing was left but washers and dryers bolted to the floor. Moments before the tornado struck, the business’s owner looked to the south: "I saw all this furniture and crap blowing across the field, and I hollered at everybody to follow me." Five customers were apparently still washing clothes, despite the warnings, and they almost paid a price with their lives. All ran to the owner’s residence next door, which was heavily damaged. They all survived in her basement.
In these seconds at Blondo Street, another amazing survival story occurred: A woman, driving home from work in a blinding downpour in her ‘71 Torino, was completely unaware of the danger nearby. She quotes: "The people on the radio were shouting about a tornado, but they kept saying it was in southwest Omaha. I really thought I was okay." As she approached Seventieth and Blondo Streets, large chunks of debris began pounding her car and power lines began flying overhead. Before she could react, her Torino was suddenly airborne. She remembers: "I was spinning; I’ll never forget the sensation – going round and round like I was in a barrel rolling down a hill." Sometime in her short flight, her car door opened and she was thrown out, landing in the nearby yard of a home. The car landed on top of her, pinning her legs behind her back and pressing the hot muffler to her chest. Her persistent screams brought others to her rescue.
With a piercing roar described as "twenty express trains", the jumbo tornado continued on, straying slightly east of Seventy-second Street. Trees bent to the earth and weathervanes went crazy as it approached, and backyard barometers plummeted in its coming shadow. It carried the force of an exploding atomic bomb, and with energy seeming immortal. The tornado was about to claim its second victim.
Margaret Baker, 86, was an elderly woman hard of hearing, in North Central Omaha. In speculation, relatives believed she was napping or reading in her living room, and failed to hear the warnings at her home on North Seventieth Street. When the twister struck, the roof was thundered into the basement of her frame home. Miss Baker was killed; her body was found in wreckage, a quarter block away. Normally a woman involved in reading and gardening, the Omaha World-Herald summed-up the unfortunate reality: "A violent end to a serene life."
Seconds later, to the north, the tornado claimed its third and last victim as it crossed Maple Street. Thirty-eight years old Roy Lester Kramar, a driver and furniture handler for Benson Transfer & Storage, apparently was waiting for a bus at Sixty-ninth Street when the tornado struck. A co-worker had dropped him just minutes earlier. When the tornado came upon him, nobody knows if Roy Lester Kramar tried to take shelter or not. Although it was said he had climbed up on a roof to watch the approaching tornado, one source believes he tried to take shelter in the nearby Benson 400 Service Station. Whatever events transpired, the storm took Mr. Kramar’s life that afternoon. He was survived by a former wife and son living in another state.
And still, the funnel continued onward, tracking to the north-northeast. Although still destroying homes, the path was beginning to narrow and thin out. As it neared its end, the twister damaged the home of a man that had lived through Omaha’s tornado of 1913 – a double dose of nature dealt over a half-century apart. Comparing the two, the man quoted the ’75 tornado as: "This one was worse…for me." Across Ames Avenue and into Benson Park, the fizzling funnel skipped its last steps before withering away. According to witnesses, the tornado remained stationary on the golf course for a few minutes – whirling into nothingness – before pulling back into the clouds, just short of 6 p.m.
Patrolman David Campbell had stuck with the chase to the end, and watched as the twister disappeared. "It just seemed to spin everything it had inside it and then pull itself back up and disappear," Campbell said. It was now precisely 4:58 p.m.
Although Benson Park seemed the end of the storm’s fury, the funnel was reported to touchdown again a few minutes later – only briefly – near Eppley Airfield, before crossing the river to tear into Iowa farmlands, near the town of Beebeetown. Ironically, Omaha’s first sign of damage was at the Applewood Golf Course, and the last sign at the Benson Park Golf Course, nearly a half-hour later. In that exact duration of time, a farmer near Mineola, Iowa, twelve miles southeast of Omaha, reported his cows had huddled together in a ravine. After the storm was over, the herd dispersed to graze the hillsides once again – another example of the keen sense found in animals.
With the danger of the twister gone, Omahans emerged to see the extent of its new wounds – and quickly, the sting of pain set in. Initially, three to five people appeared dead (later confirmed to only three), and hundreds were injured – many dug out of their own basements. A jaw-dropping path of destruction, almost nine miles long and at some points three-to-four blocks wide, cut like a knife through the heart of the city. Omaha’s second-busiest commercial artery, Seventy-second Street, was dealt the storm’s fiercest wrath. According to the Omaha Planning Commission, 572 residential units were declared destroyed or heavily damaged and nearly 1,887 more received moderate to minor damage. Commercially, 153 units were destroyed or damaged, and 23 industrial businesses were destroyed or damaged. Hundreds of automobiles were completely destroyed, leaving thousands homeless, out of work, and without transportation. At least 30 food-and-drink establishments were destroyed or ordered to temporarily close. In final assessments: A loss estimated between $150 million and a half billion dollars (1975 standards). Flying over a 2000 block area of the worst sections of damage the following day, then-Nebraska Governor J. J. Exon quoted: "The only time I have seen something this devastating was in the South Pacific during the war. I’ve lived in tornado country all my life and I’ve never seen anything comparable to this for property devastation. This is certainly the biggest loss in property damage that ever has hit Nebraska."
Following the storm, the city had to "roll up its sleeves" and face a mind-boggling job of clean up and restoration. The first steps were local police ending the confusion that reigned afterwards on Tuesday evening; most of the tornado-torn areas were under control by 8:00 p.m., and a strict curfew was enforced. More than 1,300 members of the National Guard were called in to help and prevent against looting, which immediately began following the disaster. Carrying M-16 rifles fixed with bayonets, they patrolled nearly 4,000 blocks, bounded by Fifty-second in the east, Ninetieth in the west, Pikney in the north, and the city limits in the south. In Ralston, the troops especially guarded the destroyed bank. Within a day after the disaster, nineteen people had already been arrested for looting or violating the enforced curfew – mostly youth.
The Salvation Army assisted in distributing food immediately. Many residents also pitched in, by preparing and donating food to the torn areas of the city. The Red Cross took immediate involvement; establishing a Tornado Fund, providing food, shelter, clothing, and replacing personal items as small as eyeglasses. Over 560 families applied for Red Cross aid, flocking to the organization’s two disaster registration centers set up at Crossroads shopping center, and Arbor Heights Junior High School. The Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben and Omaha World-Herald responded to the Red Cross with donations of $10,000 each. Upon acceptation, Omaha was granted a $10 million bill from the legislative committee, a bill offered by Senator Eugene Mahoney of Omaha. Several motels in Omaha also offered temporary shelter for victims, free of charge. By the next day, then-President Ford designated Omaha a federal disaster area. Thus, the Federal Disaster Assistance Administration stepped-in and was a lifesaver to many – providing rent, furnishings, financial assistance, and low interest loans to help rebuild homes and businesses. Between the various agencies and organizations, an estimated 7,000 official volunteers were at work in the city by the weekend – all a godsend.
Amidst the broken lives and dreams, blessings were immediately being counted. As the May 7th Omaha World-Herald front page (evening) banner headline read: "It Could Have Been Worse, But Tornado Alert Worked." Authorities estimated that from 300 to 500 people could have died if the tornado had hit earlier in the day, when offices were filled and schools were in session – in all, an estimated 31,000 lived or worked in the 200-block area struck. In addition, Omaha’s then-Mayor, Edward Zorinsky, reminded the city that many more would have died if not provided with adequate warning, or time to allow citizens to take cover and respond in the recommended manors made clear in tornado safety guidelines. Thanks to the National Weather Service and Omaha’s REACT team, Omaha was provided with crucial warning time to respond – unlike 1913. For this, the city was thankful.
A week after the storm, it can be said that the worst was over. The spirit of Omaha remained strong throughout the entire crisis; from the first sounding of the sirens on the afternoon of May 6th, to the clean up and repair that followed years after. In the true pioneering spirit, all homes, schools, and business were eventually rebuilt and repaired – many for the better: Lewis and Clark Middle School resumed classes a year later in a remodeled and improved, air-conditioned facility. Construction boomed after the disaster; there were a total of $9.1 million worth of permits issued in May 1975, a ninety-two percent increase over the previous month of April. A huge housing and apartment surplus that existed in Omaha – so severe it sent several real estate companies to court over bankruptcy in the spring of 1975 – was suddenly a blessing after the twister, as thousands of people were in need of new homes.
The scars left on Omaha’s landscape took years to fade away, but they have. Only the trained-eye could spot a physical mark left from that storm in present day. Despite the gradual healing of the landscape, the hearts and minds of people, living in Omaha on that day, will always remember that afternoon in clarity: "Black Tuesday", the 6th of May, 1975. It will always be a significant date in Omaha. For every year, that sixth day of May pokes many regional spirits sharply – a reminder of the greater forces in life, including the wind that shapes the plains, and the cities on them. The two violent strikes in 1913 and 1975 point to the fact that weather-wise, history does repeat itself. The strong, pioneering city of Omaha knows full well by now: Tornadoes happen here. Take watches and warnings seriously. Be prepared
Tornado-Omaha, May 6, 1975, Pyramid Printing and Publishing Co., Inc., Lubbock, TX, May 1975
Sibler, Howard, ed., et al., The Omaha Tornado May 6, 1975, C. F. Boone Publisher, Lubbock, TX 1975
National Weather Service Website. May 6, 1975 Omaha Tornado. 16 Aug. 2003
Omaha World-Herald May 7, 1975 "Tornado of ‘75", Sunrise/Metropolitan Editions
Omaha World-Herald May 8, 1975, Sunrise Edition
Ware, Doris Ann. "Twisters May Bring ‘Relatives’ on Visits." Omaha World-Herald Oct. 25, 1975
Ellick, Ellen. "Force Equal to A-Bomb In Tornado." Omaha World-Herald 1975
Ivey, Debbie. "Tornado Still Twists Photographer’s Lives." Omaha World-Herald Aug. 13, 1975
Frisbie, Al. "Worse of Personal Storm Past for Victim Who Lost Arm." Omaha World-Herald June 12, 1975
"Construction Booms After City Twister." Omaha World-Herald June 29, 1975
"Tornado Damage" Omaha Planning Commission Dept. (survey) May 9, 1975