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April 8, 1999 | Southwest Iowa F-4 Tornadoes

Nearly a dozen tornadoes touched down in Nebraska and Iowa
Posted at 2:42 AM, Apr 04, 2023

As March gives way to April, tornadic activity begins to increase across Nebraska and Iowa. On Average, Nebraska and Iowa sees double the amount of tornadoes than in March. This certainly rang true in one of the larger outbreaks to affect the region in early April, the April 8, 1999 tornado outbreak. After dropping several smaller tornadoes in eastern Nebraska, including several F-1 tornadoes near the Platte River. Storms intensified as they crossed into western Iowa, where two F-4 tornadoes occurred near the town of Creston. In this installment in This Week in Weather History, jump back to the end of the 20th century as tornadoes tore through our area.

PRELUDE: MAY 27, 1995

The geographical area of southwest Iowa affected on April 8, 1999, was just four years removed from another violent tornado outbreak which impacted the area in 1995. It was Memorial Day Weekend, and many people in western Iowa were planning their summer out. As warm air enveloped the region, a large low pressure system moved into the area. This sparked numerous thunderstorms over western Iowa, three of which produced violent tornadoes.

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Four years before 1999, three violent tornadoes affected western Iowa. The southernmost of these went near the same areas to be affected in 1999.

The first violent tornado tore through Carroll County, forming directly west of Carroll itself. This tornado nearly wiped several farmsteads off the map near Mt. Carmel. The tornado continued along the Sac/Calhoun County line before dissipating near Fonda in Pocahontas County.

Carroll County was impacted by a second violent tornado near Coon Rapids. This tornado south of town, narrowly missing it to the east. The Coon Rapids tornado is incredibly wide, reaching upwards of 3/4 of a mile. Homes were torn to shreds, with debris thrown half a mile away in some spots. Homework from one child was found 55 miles away, carried that distance by the tornado. One woman was injured, and the storm caused over 2 million dollars in damage.

The final violent tornado, the most significant, developed outside of Creston and moved north-northeast before lifting 55 miles later in Dallas County. As it aproached I-80 near Stuart, it split into a double tornado as it crossed the interstate, as shown inthis video taken of the tornadoes. As it crossed north of I-80, it consoildated into one tornado as it continued northeast through western Iowa. Many farmsteads in Adair County were leveled by the tornado. One women was injured as she rushed to the basement, she broke her hip when a fuel oil tank smacked her. Two other occupants in the home struggled to stay in the basement as the tornado attempted to suck them out, all survived. There were no fatalities from the May 27, 1995 tornadoes.

APRIL 8, 1999: THE SET-UP

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As a warm front set-up close to I-80, storms developed close to the low-pressure system and moved into the favorable area. Storms were cut off by the dryline to the south, which prevented storms from developing behind.

Four years later, and a similar set-up was occurring over eastern Nebraska into southern Iowa. A powerful low-pressure system was swinging into Nebraska, pulling up a lot of moisture with it. Temperatures reached the 70s across a large portion of Nebraska into Iowa, with these warm temperatures it provided the fuel for significant thunderstorms to erupt.

The strength of the low-pressure system increased the amount of wind shear, or turning of the winds with height, across eastern Nebraska and western Iowa. This meant that any storm that could form in this envionrment was capable of producing tornadoes, some significant.

THE NEBRASKA TORNADOES

All of the tornadoes which occurred in eastern Nebraska were weak tornadoes, only staying on the ground for less than a few minutes but still managing to cause some damage.

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The total tornadoes across Nebraska and Iowa. Note many of the tornadoes were weak and short-lived until they got into western Iowa.

Colfax County, The Story of Wilson's Church - In 1917, Czech immigrants who settled in Colfax County northwest of Schuyler began to outgrow their church. They decided to build a larger church which sat atop a rolling hill in western Colfax County, named "Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church". Wilson's Church, as it was colloquially known, stood proud in the gentle lands of Colfax County where weekly masses were held for over 30 years. In 1977, as the population dwindled, masses stopped being held in the church. Since 1977, each Memorial Day a mass would be held by the congregation that was left. In 1991, the Church was a set-piece in the TV movie "O Pioneers" based on the Willa Cather novel of the same name.

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Wilson's Church in western Colfax County stood atop a hill, a beacon for those travelling in the county since 1917. This church would suffer significant damage from the tornado in 1999.

The church faced its greatest challenge on April 8, 1999, when an F-1 tornado took aim on the building. The chimney on the church collapsed, the west wall was separated from the rest of the building. Stained glass was smashed on the south side of the building, but a few panes remained. Inside, the building was not significantly damaged. However, the tornado did much damage that it needed to be rebuilt. Across western Colfax County, the tornado damaged homes, tore apart a machine shed, and snapped power lines.

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The tornado tracked to the north around 15 miles northwest of Schuyler. While other homes were damaged, the damage at Wilson's Church would be the most poignant.

Post-tornado the story of Wilson's church continued to decline. With the building all but abandoned, vandalism became an issue to the church. In January 2021, Wilson's Church, which had stood as a beacon in Colfax County for decades, was demolished. Many of its contents, like its stained glass which survived the tornado, went to St. Patricks School in Fremont.

Morse Bluff & North Bend - Situtated on either side of the Platte River, Morse Bluff and North Bend sit west of Fremont and east of Schuyler. Morse Bluff is a town of less than 100 people on the Saunders County side of the Platte River, while North Bend is on the north side in Dodge County. On April 8, a tornado touched down in Morse Bluff and moved northwest into North Bend. In Morse Bluff, a tree fell onto city hall and the windows were blown out of the post office. Homes suffered minor damage. In North Bend, damage was concentrated to a dozen homes in a five-block radius, windows blown out and roofs damaged. The tornado was rated F-1, no one was injured or killed.

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An F-1 tornado passed from Morse Bluff in Saunders County to North Bend in Dodge County. Some homes were damaged but no one was injured or killed.

Yutan & Omaha - Towards 1pm, the tornadic storms approached the Omaha area. Many people were going about their day, getting lunch and enjoying the 70s. Down in Lincoln, a Tornado Warning was issued and saw the capitol move to their tornado shelters, although the legislature was in recess to attend the funeral of one of their own.

The first tornado warning for Douglas County was issued at 1:17pm, trained spotters had reported a tornado on the ground near Yutan in Saunders County. This tornado would eventually be rated an F-1, damaging several farms in rural Saunders County. As the first storm lifted towards Valley and dissipated, a second storm developed rapidly in Sarpy County near Gretna. This second storm prompted another tornado warning for Douglas County at 1:58, which included downtown Omaha. This storm dropped a brief funnel cloud right over downtown, but no tornado actually made contact with the ground. As quickly as it passed through, the storms exited the Omaha area into Iowa.

THE IOWA TORNADOES

As the tornadoes crossed into western Iowa, an additional several hours of warming allowed for the environment in southern Iowa. Storms managed to get more sustained in Iowa, and strong tornadoes were the result of it.

WATCH: Video of the tornadoes and some of the damage

Weaker Tornadoes: Shenandoah, Red Oak, Clarinda, and Villisca - The supercells that developed over southwest Iowa at first followed the same pattern as it did in eastern NE. Five weak tornadoes would touch down in Fremont, Montgomery, and Page Counties. 1.) A weak tornado touched down outside of Shanandoah, damaging a few fields but otherwise minimal damage. 2.) An F-1 passed very close to Red Oak, where a pig farm was damaged, and an RV was thrown into a frame house. 3.) A tornado touched down in southern Page County near College Springs and moved to near Clarinda, but dissipated before it reached town. A woman was injured by flying glass, but otherwise damage was done to homes and barns. 4.) The final tornado in the weaker ones moved near Villisca, this likely branched off the main tornado to its east, and did minor damage in town.

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Small tornadoes narrowly missed the larger towns of southwest Iowa. Many of these tornadoes were weaker causing minor damage.

The Corning/Massena F-4 - The first violent tornado to touch down in the outbreak occurred in Page County near Clarinda, just northeast of town. This tornado quickly crossed into northwest Taylor County before moving through Adams County. It clipped southeast Cass County before moving into Adair County. As it crossed through the area, it was over a mile wide at times, and even split into a double tornado similar to the event in 1995. The tornado destroyed entire farmsteads west of Corning in Adams County, some so severe as to be unrecongizeable. A few people were injured in Adams County, but none seriously. On I-80, one semi-trailer was picked up and thrown, causing the driver to break his back, but he survived. Checks from Adams County was found over 100 miles away northwest of Des Moines. The tornado traveled over 50 miles, and was rated an F-4.

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Strong tornadoes went south and west of Des Moines, where two of them achieved violent strength.

Creston F-4 - A second F-4 tornado developed close to Creston, just to the east. Curiously, the F-4 tornado in 1995 landed in between the two F-4's in 1999. In Union County, one person was injured and many homes were destroyed east of Creston. A sheriff watched an awe as the car in front of him was picked up by the tornado, thrown 35 feet high, and landed 250 yards from where it was picked up. Amazingly, the driver of the car was uninjured. The tornado weakened a bit before crossed into Madison County, but strengthened a bit into Dallas County. Across the path, over $1,000,000 was done in damage.

Two tornadoes also touched down on the south side of Des Moines, producing damage to communicates immediately to the south of Des Moines.

THE LARGER OUTBREAK

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A larger tornado outbreak swept from eastern Nebraska into Iowa, northern Missouri, and western Illinois.

Although the tornado outbreak affected southwest Iowa the hardest, it was a part of a large tornado outbreak which also impacted Missouri into Illinois. Across Missouri, numerous strong tornadoes crossed through parts of central into northeast Missouri. One tornado crossed over 50 miles through northern Missouri, and two strong tornadoes narrowly missed Columbia. Tornadoes continued into western Illinois, where tornadoes touched down near Springfield. Finally, an F-4 moved through the suburbs of Cincinatti, Ohio in the morning hours of April 9, 1999.