Everybody has milestone years, the years that point your life in any number of ways.
For me, there was 2005, the year I was married, followed by 2006, the birth of our daughter, and 2014, the year we accepted our first two foster children into our home.
There was 1996, the year I was hired at KLIN in Lincoln, Neb., following 1980, the year I knew I wanted to be a radio sportscaster after listening to Royals broadcasts with Denny Matthews and Fred White that summer.
Milestone years aren’t always good. There was 1990, the year I shamefacedly moved back into my parents’ house after what can only be described as a miserable year at the University of Arizona. When your blood alcohol content resembles your grade point average…
And then there was 1975.
1975 was significant for two reasons: I latched onto baseball as my favorite sport (and, after we moved to Bel Air, Md., the Baltimore Orioles as my favorite team). And a vicious tornado hit my hometown.
I initially called the Omaha tornado of May 6, 1975 massive. That really wasn’t the case. Bigger than average, yes, but with a maximum path width approaching half a mile it pales in comparison to other storms of the past 40 years, including Moore, Okla. (1999), Hallam, Neb. (2004) and the monster of all monsters, El Reno, Okla. (2013).
From what I can gather, though, the Omaha tornado was among the few to strike a major metropolitan area — and slice right through a major commercial area in the process. Starting just southwest of the city proper, it took a sharp north-northeast path right through the commercial heart of The Big O and then almost went due north, using 72nd Street like a rail to spin into the north central sections of town. How only three people died simply amazes me.
The Omaha World-Herald put together a 3-minute package with scanner traffic and portions of the damage path:
I remember very little of the day itself. I’ve been told it was exceedingly humid, but that’s about I’ve been told of the day leading up to the storm. When the sirens went off, we opened up the windows (which is what the meteorologists said should be standard operating procedure for decades before learning otherwise), went downstairs and waited. Before that, though, I asked my parents: “Why does the sky look like that?”
Mom says everything came to a standstill — the wind, the birds, the crickets. We waited, not sure what was coming, not sure what to expect when it was all over.
For us, nothing came. The EF-4 lifted in Benson Park, about three miles away, but it may as well have hit the house. I don’t remember what my reaction was when we came up and saw Fontenelle Park essentially untouched, but I still remember the nightmares afterward. For years, as much as I hate to admit it, I’d go to bed and see these little triangles hopping down our basement stairs, one at a time, 11 in all, and when the lead triangle got to the basement floor all 11 sucked together into a violent whirlwind extending like a giant tube to the sky. I’d always wake up just before getting thrown and our house destroyed.
I’m not sure why I started studying tornadoes on my own in the early and mid-1980s, but I do know it helped to ease my fear of the storms. Accounts of J. Snowden Flora and Joe R. Eagleman led me to wonder what it would be like to see a tornado. Part of me hoped to parlay that into a broadcast meteorology career, but junior-high struggles with basic algebra never went away and when I heard I needed two years of math past college calculus to get a degree, let alone go on air with the coveted American Meteorological Society seal of approval for television weathercasting, well, that dream ended on the spot.
So things shifted to chasing, much to the horror of my parents, who would rather see me in a sturdy structure rather than core-punching or entering the bear’s cage or whatever it’s called now. Until moving to Kansas, I always chased alone, never chased successfully except for once rather wide tornado that hit near Seward, Neb., in June 2001. What was interesting with that storm was, as looking at the storm from the southeast, there was a rain curtain surrounding the wall cloud. The way it parted was almost like a theater’s final act before a dramatic presentation. The twister had a flair for drama, too, dipping and lifting twice before slamming into the ground as a pendant and then becoming a stovepipe for most of its life.
After signing on with KVOE, I did a lot of chasing until moving to “the chair” and co-anchoring or anchoring our severe weather coverage in 2012. It’s different being in the chair. Instead of coordinating escape routes if needed, I’m coordinating radar images, spotter network reports, National Weather service bulletins, on-air and online news updates, social media information. It’s something I have always taken seriously, but I now have another reason why: my children, who don’t have the comfort of having me at home to help ensure everything will be all right in the end. Bella is past the age where she understands exactly what can happen when severe weather is at its worst and, like her dad, she has a tendency to put a lot of weight behind worst-case scenarios. That;s one of the reasons I wrote a post last week on severe weather broadcast coverage. I know what happens when you don’t know what’s taking place nearby. I’ve seen what happens when we in our business shut down coverage because certain portions of “the area” are out of danger, only to have to go wall-to-wall when neighbors are impacted. And I’ve seen what happens when the threat of widespread destruction and chaos fails to materialize.
If there’s anything I take out of the 1975 Omaha tornado, it’s that I don’t want my children to have the same nightmares I did because they didn’t know what was taking place. If there are any lessons from the past 40 years, one stands out. I don’t want them to be freaked out when severe weather risks are overblown, and I don’t want to be the one scaring them senseless for no reason.