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January 10, 1975 | The Omaha Blizzard of 1975

One of the worst blizzards in the city's history
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Posted at 5:34 PM, Jan 10, 2024

1975 was quite a year. Politically, the US was dealing with the end of the War in Vietnam under the first year of Nebraska-native President Gerald Ford, who was thrust into office after the Watergate Scandal forced the resignation of President Richard Nixon. That summer, Steven Spielberg's movie Jaws became such a hit it is considered the first "blockbuster" movie. In the sports realm, millions tuned into the final of the three big boxing matches between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in the Philippines.

In Omaha, 1975 was also quite the year, mainly due to two historic weather events. On January 10, one of the biggest blizzards in the city's history swept through. Then on May 6, an F-4 tornado moved through the area. In this installment of This Week in Weather History we will focus on the blizzard, look at what caused it, and the impacts it brought to the city.

THE WEATHER SET-UP

On January 9, 1975, National Weather Service Meteorologist James Zoller gave an interview to the Omaha World-Herald about the expectation for snow the following day, Friday, January 10. At that point, Zoller believed the bulk of the snow would be over central Nebraska, but he gave a warning to readers of the paper, saying:

The situation is touchy. If the Colorado low moves northeast just right, heavy snow could be dumped in Eastern Nebraska and Omaha.
James Zoller (Omaha World-Herald, Jan 9 1975)

On the morning of January 10, the weather service was still calling for around 4" to call within Omaha, and the heavier snow to continue out west. However, by the end of the day Omaha would receive triple that forecast, shutting the city down, how did this happen?

As Zoller mentioned, a low-pressure system was forming in eastern Colorado on January 9. Traditionally, storms that form in Colorado are the ones that produce the most snow for Nebraska and Iowa. Forecasts on January 9 believed the storm would curve northeast through Kansas, then move into western Iowa by the 10th. The band of heavy snow is expected to be west of Omaha.

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Track of the low-pressure system was vital for the significant snow to fall in Omaha on January 10, 1975

However, on January 9, the low moved east over Kansas, meaning it was located near Kansas City by the morning of the 10th. During the day of the 10th, the storm started to strengthen rapidly as it curved almost due north into Iowa. This meant that the band of heavy snow would pass over eastern Nebraska into western Iowa, right on top of Omaha.

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The surface weather map from January 11, 1975. The low pressure was incredibly strong and passed over the Great Lakes.

The storm became incredibly strong, record low-pressure was recorded across Minnesota and Wisconsin as the low-pressure system crossed over the Great Lakes. The strength of the storm system brought strong winds up to 60-70 mph over Nebraska into Iowa, alongside the heavy snow.

THE BLIZZARD OF 1975

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Snowfall totals from the blizzard of 1975 in eastern Nebraska, western Iowa, and northwest Missouri.

THE BLIZZARD IN OMAHA
The snow started falling around 5 am, but forecasts that morning still called for a snowstorm of a few inches. That morning a hoax phone call claiming to be from Omaha Public Schools reached the airwaves, confusing parents whether school was closed or not. By 8:30 am, Omaha Public Schools canceled classes for the day. Ralston, Papillion, Bellevue, and Council Bluffs School Districts canceled that day.

KMTV Blizzard of 1975

Although kids were home from school, parents and others went to work. After a few hours, it quickly became apparent that this was no ordinary storm. Within an hour of the snow beginning, the National Weather Service issued a Heavy Snow Warning which included Omaha.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wsQkxiTVWDM

As the snow fell, the wind increased to between 30-50 mph across the area, snow began to blow around and reduced visibilities. All the while the temperature crashed, temperatures were in the mid-30s when the snow fell, by noon the temperature fell to 25, and by rush hour the temperature was 15. By the morning of January 11, the temperature had fallen to the single digits, only to fall further the next day. When you combine the wind and cold, wind chill values were near zero for much of the day, as Nebraska/Iowa residents walked home from stalled cars, the wind chill was at or below 0. It was miserable on January 10.

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Cars stranded on streets as blizzard conditions swept through Omaha that Friday

Realizing the gravity of the situation, Omaha Mayor Edward Zorinsky called a Snow Emergency for Omaha and urged businesses to close. To reduce traffic congestion, Zorinsky requested businesses to close in a staggered pattern from east to west across the city. Businesses east of 19th St would close at noon, those between 19th and 30th close at 1 pm, and any business east of 30th at 1:30 pm.

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Edward Zorinsky was the Mayor of Omaha during both the Blizzard of 1975 and the tornado that following May. He later served as a senator from 1976 to 1987. Today, Zorinsky Lake in west Omaha is named in his honor, as is the Zorinsky Federal Building on Capital St.

Despite the staggered closures, roads quickly became impassable by early afternoon, leading to a long day for commuters. Those who managed to get home hours after they left for work were the lucky ones, as many became stranded on roads across the metro. Some walked to shelters in hotels, and businesses that were still open, and others who opened their homes to strangers. Mayor Zorinsky ordered businesses with staff to open for the night, and thousands of people spent the night in these places.

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By the afternoon, many people had to abandon their cars and walk to shelter in the wind and cold.

Hundreds of motorists got stuck in their cars as the several-foot-high drifts prevented them from leaving. The Nebraska National Guard brought out snow vehicles to rescue those stranded. By the end of the day on January 10, around 400 people were rescued from their vehicles and brought to the armory to shelter for the night.

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People attempting to dig out their cars in the snow in Omaha on January 10, 1975.

Sunrise on Saturday morning showed the scene. A foot of snow fell in the Omaha metro, with drifts waist-deep. Abandoned cars were littered across the metro, making it impossible to plow the snow off the roads. The city officially sat still as businesses didn't reopen. Still, children played in the snow, motorists ventured to collect their cars, and the symphony of shovels hitting the concrete was the common sound of the day.

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Even school buses managed to get stuck in the snow

Although the wind subsided, the cold air continued to spill in as temperatures didn't even reach 10 degrees for the entire weekend. It was the Super Bowl, a celebration amid the storm on Sunday. The coinciding of the blizzard of 1975 with the Super Bowl is what gave the storm its moniker, the "Super Bowl Blizzard"

Life slowly returned to normal over the weekend. Eppley reopened, roads were cleared, and businesses were opening. Towing companies got to work into the following week towing cars to allow snowplows to move. Many schools were closed on Monday but gradually began to open through the week.

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Cars stranded on the streets of Omaha after the blizzard of 1975

Tragically, the storm left a human toll with over a dozen people losing their lives. One Omaha woman died of exposure when she went to feed birds but got lost outside. Others suffered heart attacks either by shoveling or pushing cars, and a few died in car accidents outside of Omaha.

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The wind upwards of 60mph buried vehicles in drifts that piled several feet high

Over the next week, the snow was plowed, temperatures warmed some, and the Blizzard of 1975 became a prominent memory for many Omaha residents. When compared to the blizzards of the past and future, the Blizzard of 1975 remains one of the strongest in Omaha's memory even to this day.

EASTERN NEBRASKA/WESTERN IOWA
Outside of Omaha, impacts were not any less severe, particularly in the rural areas. In Lincoln, snow plows were ordered off the streets by noon as the snow fell. A similar situation played out in Lincoln as it did in Omaha, as cars were abandoned on streets as people sought shelter. Although Lincoln saw a few inches less than Omaha, the city still effectively shut down for several days.

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Snow drifts piled as high as half a stop sign near David City in Butler County, west of Omaha.

Ironically, the annual Blizzard of 1888 club was expected to meet in Lincoln on January 12, but it was canceled due to the Blizzard of 1975.

Near Milford, in Seward County, a multi-car pile-up occurred on I-80 leaving one injured and the others shaken up. Roads across Seward and York Counties were impassable, plows were pulled from service until Saturday afternoon. In Nemaha County, 8 people were stranded on a farm, needing assistance from the Nebraska National Guard to be rescued.

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Snow along Main Street in Plattsmouth

Outside the county seats, those in rural eastern Nebraska were stuck at their homes for a couple of days as roads needed to be cleared off the county roads. For anyone who suffered medical emergencies, some needed to be airlifted to hospitals after the wind subsided. Drifts several feet high closed roads for days across rural eastern Nebraska.

The blizzard impacted areas of western Iowa as hard as it did in eastern Nebraska, with several cities isolated from the world for several days. In Carroll County, a school bus taking students home after classes were canceled slid into a ditch, only causing minor injuries to a few students.

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Snow in Council Bluffs from the blizzard of 1975

ACROSS THE COUNTRY
The blizzard continued its impacts further northeast into the upper Midwest. The worst of the storm was felt in Minnesota, where winds whipped up to over 80 mph alongside 1-2' of snow that fell over the western side of the state. The highest totals occurred in Duluth and International Falls, MN where 2' and over fell. One train was stuck in the snow, causing its 168 passengers to become stranded for several hours. In eastern South Dakota, snow upwards of 18" fell causing problems.

The storm also produced record low barometric pressure readings for cities like Minneapolis and Milwaukee in January.

To the south, the storm system produced a tornado outbreak across parts of the south. One F-4 tornado tracked nearly 60 miles across southern Mississippi, killing 9 and injuring around 100 people. Another F-3 tornado east of Birmingham, Alabama killed 1.

In the warm sector, record-high temperatures were achieved in cities like Chicago (60 degrees), Louisville KY (66 degrees), Washington DC (75 degrees), and New York City (65 degrees).

In a wider context, the Blizzard of 1975 remains one of the strongest blizzards to impact the United States and certainly lives on in Omaha's memory.