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July 4, 1945 | Holiday Tornado in Butler County

Fourth of July celebrations were disrupted when an F-4 tornado moved through Butler County
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Posted at 7:00 AM, Jul 04, 2023

Independence Day is often a time of celebration, festivities, and fireworks. Since 1776, Americans have commemorated and celebrated the holiday. In 1778, George Washington gave his troops an extra ration of rum to celebrate the Fourth. In 1870, the federal government declared Independence Day an unpaid holiday, making it a paid one in 1938.

Typically, weather for the Fourth of July is often hot and humid in Nebraska and Iowa, sometimes interrupted a few years by nature's fireworks. Usually, we do not have to think about tornadoes on the Fourth, but they can happen. Case in point — just last year, in 2022, an EF-1 tornado skirted just southeast of Grand Island around 1 a.m. Other than that, tornadoes on the Fourth have been sparse and weak.

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The tornado which struck the Grand Island area during the early morning hours of the 4th of July 2022. The blue line shows the path of the EF-1 tornado. A few homes were damaged, but no one was injured or killed.

That was not the case for residents in Butler County in 1945, when a deadly tornado tore southeast through the county. Impacting the communities of Rising City and Surprise, the 1945 tornado would take seven lives and injured a dozen people, a tragic Fourth of July.

In this installment of This Week in Weather History, we remember those impacted by a holiday tornado in Butler County.

July is not a month known for tornadoes in Nebraska or Iowa. That is because the jet stream, our driver for weather, pushes north into Canada. So while tornadoes, do happen, they are not as common as in May or June. However, July 4, 1945, was somewhat unusual in terms of the jet stream, which was much further south. This, combined with the hot and humid weather that afternoon led to conditions being favorable for severe weather. That evening, a cold front slid southeast through Nebraska, sparking off thunderstorms.

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The actual weather map at 2:30 am on July 5, 1945. By this point, the cold front responsible for sparking the tornado had passed through the region.

The Rising City/Surprise tornado was the only tornado of the day, and it began in northern Polk County, most likely. The tornado moved in a somewhat unusual direction, southeast. Crossing into Butler County, the tornado gained strength as it headed towards Rising City.

Two miles west of Rising City sat the home of James and Marie Henderson, 28, who married in 1933 and moved to the farmhouse. They had two children, Dorothy and James, the latter being four at the time of the tornado. That night, the family was home with a visitor from David City by the name of Dedie Alshouse. It is said none of the family knew of the tornado as it hit, obliterating the farmhouse. All of the family was injured and transported to hospitals after the tornado. Unfortunately, the tornado took the lives of Marie and her son James, as well as Dedie the visitor.

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Taken from the Butler County Press, Courtesy of the Butler County Historical Society

One mile southeast of the Henderson farm sat the Uphoff house. Living at the house was the Uphoff family, composed of Mr. and Mrs. Uphoff and their children Donna Marie,7, Lois,5, Nina Lou,4, and Karen, 4 months. Also at the home was the Shunk family, composed of Mr. and Mrs. Shunk and their two children Marilyn, 5, and Sandra, 2. It is unknown what the family was doing when the tornado hit, but reports claim they were in the cellar when the tornado hit and part of the cellar collapsed. Most of the occupants were badly injured, needing medical assistance. Tragically, three of the Uphoff daughters, Donna Marie, Lois, and Nina Lou were killed in the tornado. A fourth victim, Sandra Shunk, also lost her life. These would be the seven fatalities of the Butler County Independence Day tornado.

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Taken from the Butler County Press, Courtesy of the Butler County Historical Society

Continuing southeast, the tornado struck the small town of Surprise. The tornado went through the business district, where a grocery store was significantly damaged. Also damaged in town were a Credit Union, a Masonic Lodge, and a feedlot among other buildings. The tornado ripped the porch of a home south of Surprise before lifting. In its wake, the tornado left several homes destroyed and thousands of dollars in property damage.

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Taken from the Butler County Press, Courtesy of the Butler County Historical Society

The storm did not stop there, although there was no tornado a fierce hail and windstorm continued into Seward County. Seward, known as Nebraska's Fourth of July City, was settling in for the fireworks display when the dark clouds loomed. On June 26, a tornado hit west of town, spooking many residents who headed home upon seeing the dark clouds. Eventually, everyone else fled to their cars. The roof of the amphitheater blew off into parked cars and the Blue River, injuring one person who broke her back.

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The grandstand roof gone in Seward from high winds. Photo taken from the Blue Valley Blade newspaper

Overall, the tornado and other storms caused $300,000 in damages in 1945 money, or equivalent to over $5 million today. With seven killed, the tornado ranks as one of the deadlier ones in Nebraska. The lives of the seven are still remembered today in the region.