HOW THE STORM STARTED
"A thousand demons seemed to have been let loose a few moments before 6 o’clock," writes an eyewitness of the tornado, "when the intense roar of the storm caused all listeners to stand appalled in the homes around Bemis Park. But a few seconds passed and before most of the people there could get to the cellar stairs, they were caught in a whirl of unseen forces and some fell dead under crashing timbers while others were scratched, bruised and maimed in the chaos debris that swirled and fell.
"I have been near tornadoes before and the sky a few moments before six showed a portent in the southwest black as ink. A party of us had just left an automobile and stepped inside a house on Cuming street for a visit. There was a gentle rain falling and occasionally a hailstone pattered. Suddenly there came the dull boom of the storm, growing more and more intense as if tightening its forces to let them loose on the man-made buildings with the scorn of the King of Furies. Great forest trees twisted and snapped, and in ten seconds nothing was left of some of them but stumps, and some of them were pulled from the ground and vaulted in the air, the missiles of a terrible invader.
"In the house the sound was as of something ripping like a canvas, and eddies of power, not wind, but electric forces, grasped the buildings and sent them careening into a pile of twisted kindling or set them down with a jar in all kinds of grotesque poses. It was not a mere wind or a twister; there was a feeling as though an irresistible force was pushing one over the precipice of ruin. The air was like sulphur and one felt as in a daze; no effort seemed intelligent, and those swift moments passed as a terrible nightmare. In an instant almost it was over. We had moved toward the cellar stairs, but none had gone down, for the wreck was finished and we felt the calm. Swiftly taking a survey of the scene, the result was as though an army of devastation had been at work all the long day. The valley in the eastern part of Bemis Park was a mess of flattened buildings and the $25,000 mansion once erected by Tolf Hansen on a prominence at Thirty-fourth and Lincoln boulevard was a one-story junk pile, while across the street lay a row of piles of timbers, with here and there a building all awry.
"The tornado came from the southwest across Cuming street and lifted after it passed the park district. The hills there were not touched, and in the distance the House of Hope on North Twenty-seventh street loomed up without a scar.
"Those ten seconds or more had left a trail of ruined homes and dazed, mangled half-crazed victims. The demon had done its work and vanished again into the unseen."
The most eminent authorities on the subject describe the formation of a tornado in practically the same manner. The conditions most favorable to the formation of tornadoes are said to exist when a layer of warm, humid air lies next to the earth, while in the same vicinity, at a higher altitude, there is a colder stratum of air. The notable windstorms have occurred in the same manner and under similar conditions. When the upper stratum of colder air with a high barometer comes into contact with a lower layer of warm, humid air, the warm air goes up. The dry cold air gives way for the warmer, and with a whirling motion the storm becomes more violent. Little whirlwinds observed in almost every community preceding a rain storm are in reality miniature tornadoes, their lessened violence being generally due to the smaller areas of atmosphere involved in the movement.
The centrifugal force due to the diurnal rotation of the earth also pushes the more dense air toward the equator harder than it does the lighter moist air, and the lighter air is raised up by the denser and overflows toward the pole. Now a body on the earth’s surface and in motion relative to it, while at the same time rotating with it, will appear to an observer on the earth to be deflected toward the right hand as it moves forward in the Northern Hemisphere, while it will appear to be deflected toward the left hand in the Southern Hemisphere. By virtue of this deflection the winds blowing toward a region of low pressure acquire a deflection, coming from any direction, which, instead of meeting at the center of the region of low pressure, causes a violent whirl around it. The barometric pressure within the whirl is consequently much lower than it would be if the winds attracted to the region did meet in the center of the low pressure area. The general movement of tornadoes is from the southwest to the northeast.
EASTER SUNDAY, MARCH 23, 1913
"The churches were emptied of their happy throngs, the patter of a spring rain was bringing frowns to the faces of the newly bonneted women folk, and the children were clamoring for their evening luncheon when there fell upon Omaha, Nebraska. the most terrible tornado in the history of the United States.
"When the light of day had brought the ghastly magnitude of the horror beneath the eyes of the surviving citizens of the metropolis it was realized that the torrential downpour which followed the cyclonic demon had saved the city from annihilation by fire.
"Thus, even in the face of such deep distress, the brave Omahans have seen a true resurrection in this fateful Easter Sunday; have taken countenance of the saving grace which fell upon them, and are even now deeply engrossed in the sturdy work of erecting a new and greater residential district from the splinters and ashes of that grewsome path of ruins.
"Sweet charity is at every hand—relief is spontaneous and boundless. The True Brotherhood of Omaha has been formed in this hour of tribulation."
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© 2001, Lynn Waterman