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May 1, 1930 | The Tekamah Tornado

A violent tornado hit the north side of town
Tekamah Tornado.jpg
Posted at 5:48 PM, May 12, 2024
and last updated 2024-05-12 18:48:58-04

Because Nebraska is so rural, tornadoes directly impacting towns are a rarity. Some notable exceptions include the Herman tornado of 1899, the Easter Sunday tornadoes of 1913, the Primrose tornado of 1965, the Omaha tornado of 1975, the Grand Island tornadoes of 1980, and more. One more can be added to that list, the May 1, 1930 Tekamah tornado.

That evening, an estimated F-4 tornado with winds over 200 mph plowed over the northern side of Tekamah. In this installment of This Week in Weather History, we look at the 1930 tornado that struck Tekamah.

The weather set-up on May 1, 1930, was ominous. A low-pressure system was over southern Canada with a cold front moving over eastern Nebraska. Ahead of this cold front, warm air laden with moisture had overspread the central United States. The cold front also ran into ample wind shear (the change in wind with height) conducive for tornadoes. Everything was locked into place for a tornado outbreak over the mid-Missouri River Valley.

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Severe weather set-up on May 1, 1930.

The first tornado in Nebraska occurred in Thurston County and continued south of Sioux City. It passed over rural areas, damaging a farm near Homer in Dixon County before crossing into Iowa. Hundreds of people in Sioux City watched the tornado pass to the south, taking shelter as it did so. It lifted east of Sioux City.

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Confirmed tornadoes in northeast Nebraska from the May 1, 1930 outbreak

The next tornado occurred in eastern Cuming County near Bancroft. The tornado touched down to the west of town and moved southeast. One farmstead south of Bancroft suffered severe damage with almost every building destroyed and many livestock killed. The tornado then turned north toward Bancroft, sending many residents into a panicked flight to shelter. As if by some miracle, the tornado turned to the east of town before entering and lifted. Before lifting, it significantly destroyed another barn.

As these tornadoes continued, another storm developed close to West Point and moved east. Around 6:30 pm, a violent tornado began to the west of Tekamah. By 1930, the town already had a long history, being founded in the 1850s. By 1930, it hosted a population of around 1,700 (the town's population has remained steady even today) and was the county seat of Burt County. That evening, many in the city were going about their daily routines when the black cloud descended on the city.

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Photo of the tornado west of Tekamah by Gordon Baker

The cemetery on the northwest side of town was the first location to be impacted in Tekamah. Many headstones were picked up and thrown, smashing into several pieces in contact with the ground. An American War Veterans stone was also damaged, it needed to be replaced.

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Damage in the Tekamah Cemetary from a tornado in 1930

It then ripped into the neighborhoods on the north side of town. About 40 homes were destroyed within Tekamah, some just left with their foundation remaining. Modern estimates place the tornado at F-4 intensity with wind speeds over 200 mph. The tornado was potentially one-half mile wide as it moved into the north side of Tekamah.

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The approximate path (red) of the tornado through the north side of Tekamah.

The greatest tragedy of the tornado occurred in the Brinley home where Al Brinley and his wife lived with their 16-year-old daughter Myrna. When a neighbor ran over to the house to warn the Brinley family about the tornado, Al and his friend John Houser shrugged off the claims and went to look for themselves. Al went outside while John went to a second-story window. Meanwhile, Mrs. Brinley and Myrna went to the basement to shelter. The home took a direct hit, the second story and bringing the floor into the basement. Al Brinley was found 75 yards away, dead. John Houser was also killed, and found in the rubble of the home. Mrs. Brinley protected her daughter from the tornado and suffered extensive injuries, but she would recover. Myrna survived with little injury.

Two more people were killed in the Tekamah tornado, bringing the total to 4. A woman, Mrs. Tuttle, was killed by the cemetery. Another tragic occurrence came when a two-month-old baby was ripped from his mother's arms and died.

The tornado lifted near the Missouri River bluffs in Iowa, doing no damage across the river. The Tekamah tornado was one of the strongest tornadoes in a large tornado outbreak that spanned multiple states. Violent tornadoes occurred near St. Joseph and Kansas City, Missouri. As well, violent tornadoes occurred in southern Iowa. It was the first of a violent week in tornadic weather across the central US, with over 50 tornadoes being confirmed and 110 people losing their lives.

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Scene from Tekamah in the aftermath of the tornado on May 1, 1930.

Those who experienced the battlefields of World War I 15 years prior compared the scenes from Tekamah to that. Homes were reduced to rubble, and many trees were stripped of their leaves and left trunks. It was an immense cleanup effort in which thousands from across the area went to help out. By the first anniversary of the tornado, Tekamah was back like nothing impacted it before, one could notice the barren landscape of north Tekamah where small trees were planted. Now, almost 100 years later, those trees are giant and sprawling with no sign of what had occurred all those years ago.