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Easter Sunday 1913 Tornadoes - Part 1 | The Perfect Storm

A look at the world in 1913, and the meteorological set-up for the tornadoes
Posted at 8:00 AM, Mar 20, 2023

Easter Sunday - March 23, 1913 - will be a day long remembered in Nebraska and Iowa. That day, multiple violent tornadoes devastated entire communities in the region. The most violent of them went directly through Omaha, causing a path of utter devastation. However, the Omaha tornado was but one of several violent tornadoes that struck close to one another. Towns such as Craig, Yutan, and Berlin (Otoe) outside of Omaha in Nebraska suffered extensive damage; as did Council Bluffs, Woodbine, Gray, and others in western Iowa.

This short series on This Week in Weather History will look in detail not just at the Omaha tornado, but at the entire day of destruction for Nebraska and Iowa. Part 1 (this part) will establish the background into the world of 1913, what Omaha and the US were like, the state of meteorology, and the atmospheric conditions that led to such a violent tornado outbreak occurring. Part 2 begins by looking at the individual tornadoes, focusing on the tornadoes of eastern Nebraska. Part 3 examines the tornadoes recorded and unrecorded in western Iowa. Finally, part 4takes a detailed look at the tornado which devastated Omaha. Take a look back at the tornado outbreak which shaped a region, 110 years ago this week.

1913 - A WORLD OF PROGRESS

As the world hurtled into the 20th century, progress was the keyword for anyone living at the time. Whether it was political reform, social change, technological progress, or anything else in the era. In the United States, this is known as the "Progressive Era". Picture somebody who was born in 1870 in the United States, this person through their lifetime witnessed the advent of electricity, the birth of the automobile and the airplane, the telephone, the radio, and so much more. 1913 was a completely different world to this person than was his childhood, 1913 was in the age of historic progress.

A year prior, the world mourned the tragic loss of the Titanic, and a year later this progress would come to a screeching halt with the guns of the First World War. 1913 is often seen today as one of the final "good years" before the war. The Presidential election of 1912 had been contested, with Woodrow Wilson winning on a fluke, he would be inaugurated on March 4th, just a few weeks before the tornadoes. This was also the year that Henry Ford began his assembly line for the new Model T. Radio was becoming a household object. Motion pictures were becoming the new form of entertainment, with motion picture theaters popping up all over the place.

Nebraska and Iowa felt this progress as well. Omaha was a growing hub in the Midwest, hosting a population of over 100,000 in 1913. It was a melting pot of cultures and people who moved to the city looking for economic opportunities.

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The actual city limits of Omaha were much smaller in 1913 then today. Roughly, the city limits were bounded between Grover Street in the south; 48th and 52nd in the west; Read Street in the north; and the Missouri River in the south. Surrounding Omaha was the towns of South Omaha (annexed into the city in 1915), Dundee (also annexed into the city in 1915), Florence (annexed in 1917), and Benson (also annexed into the city in 1917). The rest of Douglas and Sarpy County was rural farmland, dotted with small towns. Ralston was a small community built a year prior. Other small communities included Elkhorn and Valley in the western section of the county.

Likewise, smaller towns in eastern Nebraska and western Iowa also grew, and economic prosperity encouraged people to move to the region. Immigration, mostly from Europe, brought higher and more diverse populations to other counties outside of Omaha. A few months after the tornadoes in July, future President Gerald Ford was born on Woolworth Avenue in Omaha. Meanwhile, Iowa-born future President Herbert Hoover was about to enter his philanthropic efforts, and eventually a political career.

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On Woodrow Wilson's administration as Secretary of State was former Nebraska representative William Jennings Bryan. Bryan was in Omaha the day before the tornadoes, heading to his home in Lincoln the following day, he witnessed the tornado east of town as it continued onward into Omaha.

In Sports, the Nebraska Cornhuskers would play an undefeated season, a continuation of an unbroken streak of wins from 1912 to 1916.

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The Nebraska Cornhuskers in 1913, where they played an undefeated season, the second of what would be four undefeated seasons in a row.

METEOROLOGY IN 1913

As the rest of the world progressed, meteorology did the same in its ways. In 1890, the US Weather Bureau, the precursor to the National Weather Service, was established under the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Weather forecasting under the Weather Bureau was in its infancy in 1913, when basic forecasts could be outlined up to a day out. The way weather was understood was different in 1913 as well, the term "front" was not used yet Their understanding of how weather works and what causes it was still incomplete, but weather forecasting was still unimaginable to anyone past 1 day.

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One of the duties of the Weather Bureau was to produce a daily weather map at 8am. This is an example of one of the weather maps from the morning of Easter Sunday 1913. These weather maps showed where high and low pressure was, and the various recordings from weather stations across the country. Forecasters would use these weather maps to predict the weather for the next 24 hours.

If weather forecasting excelled, tornado forecasting and research were non-existent. Thanks to a few meteorologists who studied tornadoes in the 1880s, the basic components for tornadoes were understood, but tornado research stopped there. The Weather Bureau believed that forecasting tornadoes would lead to unnecessary panic, thus in the 1890s the word "tornado" was banned from public forecasts. This ban would be in effect until the 1940s when two meteorologists in Oklahoma issued the first "Tornado Warning". This meant that any tornado until the 1940s went completely unwarned, save for those impacted giving a heads-up to the immediate town in its path. On Easter Sunday 1913, Omaha and the surrounding cities would have no warning of the impending tornadoes.

MARCH 23, 1913: THE PERFECT STORM

There are rare times in meteorology where the ingredients for tornadoes can come together so perfectly to produce a once-in-a-lifetime storm system. A recent example of this in Nebraska/Iowa was the December 15, 2021, tornado outbreak where over 100 tornadoes touched down in December. Another example was the 2014 Pilger Tornadoes, where conditions came together on a local scale. March 23, 1913, was just another example of those ingredients coming together for the significant tornado outbreak that came from it.

To get severe weather and tornadoes, four requirements must be met. Those four requirements are: 1.) Moisture; 2.) Instability; 3.) Wind Shear; and 4.) Lifting Mechanism. Did March 23 meet those requirements? Yes, and in many cases, it likely excelled in them.

MOISTURE - Although we do not have access to the wealth of weather data from 1913, the stuff we do have can give us a somewhat accurate picture of the meteorology behind Easter 1913. For example, we know that the high temperature in Omaha that day was 68 degrees, pretty warm for late March where the average is only the low 50s. Lincoln hit 72 degrees. Alongside the warmth we have moisture with it, relative humidities that day were in the 70-80% range according to reports from the region. This relative humidity yields dewpoints in the 50s to near 60, which is more than enough moisture to get severe weather in March.

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High temperatures on March 23, Omaha reached the upper 60s while Lincoln made it to the low 70s, well above average for March.
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Dewpoints on the afternoon of March 23, despite dewpoints not being exceptionally high it was still sufficient for tornadoes in late March.

INSTABILITY - Moisture and instability can sometimes go hand in hand. Instability is in essence the tendency for warm air at the surface to accelerate upward into the atmosphere. This is done typically when warmer, less dense, air at the surface rises into colder, more dense air to attempt to settle on top of the cold air. Sometimes, the colder the air is above the surface, the faster the warm air rises, and the more instability there is. While we do not have any official data on instability, we can assume the 60s/70s was able to accelerate upward fast, thus plenty of instability.

WIND SHEAR - Wind shear is the changing of the winds with height, either in speed or in direction. Reports from the ground tell us the wind was coming from the south to southeast at 20-40mph, a windy day. As one goes up in the atmosphere, that wind both changed direction to the southwest and sped up to over 100mph. This is ample speed and direction shear to get storms sustained and rotating.

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Surface winds approached 40mph during the day, helping to bring in the warm air as well as providing wind shear for tornadoes.
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Several miles above the ground, the winds were stronger and out of the southwest. This meant storms could sustain themselves as the storms were tilted, as well as providing rotation for tornadoes.
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This change in the winds with height, or wind shear, allowed storms to rotate which is a crucial ingredient for tornadoes to touch down.

LIFTING MECHANISM - Finally, you need a trigger to spark storms. On Easter Sunday, a cold front was the trigger for storms to form. Cold fronts as they move across give the warm air a shove upward to make way for the colder air. Sometimes, this shove for the warmer air allows it to rise, breaking a layer of dry air we call a cap. This cold front was strong and managed to spawn several strong thunderstorms over eastern Nebraska.

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The final ingredient was a cold front which drove storm development in eastern Nebraska. All of those ingredients came together over eastern NE and western IA for violent tornadoes.

It was a combination of these four factors, all of which were in abundance, that caused the tornado outbreak that raked over Nebraska and Iowa on March 23. This was the same storm system that two days later would create biblical flooding over Indiana and Ohio, it was about to be one major week in American weather, and it started in Nebraska.

READ PART 2: Easter Sunday 1913 Tornadoes - Part 2 | Tornadoes of Eastern Nebraska