Thousands of people worked together to clean up Omaha, which sustained an inflation-adjusted $1.1 billion in damage. Here volunteers work near 72nd Street and Western Avenue. THE WORLD-HERALD

1975 tornado: 'Out of tragedy there was a rebirth'

Tougher building codes and interfaith cooperation are just part of the legacy of the 1975 tornado that slammed Omaha. Some have called Omaha's rebound, spurred by thousands of volunteers, a textbook tornado recovery.

Also read: Officer tracks the beast, provides live-saving reports

By Nancy Gaarder / World-Herald staff writer

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Three schools were hit and this one, the 425-pupil, Westgate Elementary, was destroyed. The only deaths that day? Three adults at separate sites in the city. See dozens more photos of the tornado and its aftermath.

Lucky breaks

With a storm this ferocious, how is it that only three people lost their lives? Consider:
» Schools had dismissed for the day. Westgate Elementary, which an hour earlier had been filled with 400-plus students and teachers, was destroyed. (The school clock stopped at 4:36 p.m.) Creighton Prep and Lewis and Clark Middle Schools also were heavily damaged.
» Till the tornado veered north, Ak-Sar-Ben racetrack and its grandstand filled with 8,700 people was in its path. If Ak-Sar-Ben had been hit, it would have been the deadliest tornado in U.S. history, an expert said. As it was, only debris fell on track property.
» No trailer parks were hit.
» Rain accompanied but didn’t obscure the tornado, so everyone could see the massive wedge and realize the danger. After the tornado passed, the rain kept fires to a minimum, reducing further damage. The rain then stopped and gave the city several days of pleasant spring weather for the cleanup.
» The timing of the threat — the National Weather Service issued its warning at 4:14 p.m., and Omaha sounded sirens at 4:29 p.m. — prompted most employers to keep people at work and off of rush-hour roads.
» Even though forecasting and communication were primitive by today’s standards, the forecasting efforts of the National Weather Service and storm-spotting work by local emergency officials came together flawlessly. At a time when the average lead time between a warning and a tornado was less than five minutes, Omaha had about 15 minutes to prepare. That’s similar to the average today, 40 years later.

Forty years ago this week, one of the most destructive tornadoes in U.S. history chewed through the heart of Omaha. From the rubble, the city emerged with a re-energized central commercial corridor, a religious community collaboration whose legacy continues today, and as a national leader in tornado-resilient school construction.
From Ralston north to Benson Golf Course, the tornado caused about $1.1 billion in inflation-adjusted damage, mostly between 96th and 69th Streets. Luck, circumstance and the determination of a number of people worked together to reduce the death toll — only three people died — and propel Omaha toward a rapid recovery.
In fact, the pace of Omaha’s recovery was astonishing. Within seven days, the cleanup was considered 80 percent complete. That, in turn, sped restoration. A year later, recovery was termed 95 percent complete.
Then-Mayor Ed Zorinsky said outside officials were stunned by Omaha’s comeback and described it as a textbook recovery from a tornado.
Thousands volunteered in the days after the tornado. Schools dismissed students to help. Businesses responded to pleas for trucks, bulldozers and workers to clear away the mountains of debris. Police, firefighters and emergency and utility workers put in long hours without days off.
“I’ve never seen such an outpouring of volunteerism,” Zorinsky said. “It was astounding. Every time I turned around, there would be more groups pouring in to help.”
People opened their wallets, too. The World-Herald and the Lincoln Journal Star together raised $1.5 million in inflation-adjusted aid. The equivalent of about $1.3 million was donated to the local interfaith group that formed after the tornado to assist the recovery.
The demographics of the tornado’s path helped encourage recovery. It struck middle- to upper-middle-class neighborhoods, commercial and industrial areas — property that was largely insured.
The recovery delivered tougher building codes; set the stage for 72nd Street’s commercial anchor, the Nebraska Furniture Mart; and united the city’s diverse faiths in a charitable effort that evolved into the nonprofit Together Inc.
The disaster prompted city officials to aggressively examine building codes and disaster response, commissioning two studies and a disaster review task force. Although it took several years, the city revised its building codes to require that new school buildings, apartments and trailer parks include tornado shelters in their construction.
Such a requirement of schools remains unusual. To this day, Sarpy County communities don’t require it of their schools. Even in tornado-prone Oklahoma, few districts require it.
The city’s ability to make code changes that other cities haven’t put into effect reflected its attitude at the time.
“Omaha did use that experience to its benefit in affecting the safety of its people,” said longtime planner Marty Shukert.

Cleanup volunteers sign up at the Crossroads and are formed into crews, then transported by bus to the work areas on May 14, 1975. THE WORLD-HERALD

This photo from Bill Roark shows the 7900 block of Nina Street in the Westgate neighborhood, where the Roark home was among those left in this pile of rubble.

The year in weather

The 1975 weather year was highlighted by more than just the May 6 tornado that ripped through Omaha (and others that slammed Magnet and took a swipe at Pierce the same day).

The Blizzard of ’75 on Jan. 10 dropped 11 to 19 inches of snow, which was whipped by winds with a top speed of 60 mph. The lowest temperature that day was 4. In eastern Nebraska and western Iowa, 28 people died in the storm.
March 26-27 in the Nebraska Panhandle and the Dakotas. Eleven people died in the three states; 1,500 motorists were stranded and 300 members of the Nebraska National Guard were activated to help the state’s 25 westernmost counties. The 14 to 17 inches of snow was drifted by 60 mph winds.
Nov. 19-20 in Central Nebraska. The 6 to 20 inches of snow was pushed by winds clocked at 80 mph. Four people died and the Guard was again called out.

The rains stopped in June and didn’t resume until mid-August. It was one of the driest summers in 45 years. Irrigation units were turned on — and left on. But dryland crops withered and pastures burned brown. Overall moisture for the year ended near normal, but it was woefully lacking during critical growing periods.

Comparing the big ones

March 23, 1913 (Easter Sunday evening) and May 6, 1975 (a Tuesday, late afternoon)
Each tornado cut a long swath across Omaha.
The 1975 storm touched down in southwest Omaha and continued north along 72nd Street; the 1913 twister touched down in Ralston and ripped its way north.
Each was classified as an F4 tornado on the Fujita 1-to-5 scale, with winds up to 200 mph.
One key difference: Warning systems in 1975 helped hold the death toll to three; 103 died in the 1913 storm. Both storms injured many people (350 in 1913; 157 in 1975) and caused millions of dollars in damage ($8.7 million in 1913; $202.7 million in today’s inflation-adjusted dollars); $125 million in 1975 ($1.1 billion today).

Perhaps the most visible consequence of the 1975 tornado is the sprawling Nebraska Furniture Mart complex at 72nd and Jones Streets. The tornado destroyed a much-smaller Mart and neighboring buildings, including a post office.
The Nebraska Furniture Mart bought those properties and expanded, more than doubling its retail space, said Bob Batt, vice president. The expansion has continued over the years with additional property purchases.
Had that land not become available, Batt said, the business likely would have expanded elsewhere in the metro area. A well-timed business decision played a role, too. Just six weeks before the tornado, the Furniture Mart had shored up its insurance so that it would be more comprehensive, Batt said.
"Out of tragedy there was a rebirth," Batt said.
Paul Landow, assistant professor of political science at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and someone long active in civic matters, had a similar view.
Prior to the tornado, 72nd Street had more of a small-town feel, with less commercial traffic and more of a mom-and-pop aspect to its businesses. Now it has a 73-acre Furniture Mart campus as its commercial anchor.
"It was very painful for a lot of people, but in the end it was better for all of us," Landow said. "It's pretty clear that the 72nd Street corridor improved considerably in many different ways. Now it's a bustling, high-quality commercial street.”"
The Omaha tornado also brought Omaha’s religious community together, to the lasting benefit of the city's needy.
The storm struck facilities belonging to some of the metro area's major faiths, including Temple Israel, the First United Methodist Church and Creighton Prep and then-Bergan Mercy Hospital.
The city's major churches worked as a single group, and over the next year provided the money, volunteers and coordination to deliver relief to metro-area citizens.
"We have learned how to work together," the Rev. Jerry Elrod, then director of the Interfaith Human Services Disaster Task Force, said a year after the tornado.
That united effort lives on today in the social service agency known as Together Inc. Last year it served about 30,000 people, according to Executive Director Mike Hornacek. The organization is celebrating its 40th anniversary today with a free 2:30 p.m. concert at the First United Methodist Church, 7020 Cass St.

Some of those whose homes were shattered by the tornado say they emerged stronger for the lessons it taught them.
"You'd think in our darkest hour things would have fallen apart, but it didn't — it did the opposite," said Bill Roark, who as a teenager survived the storm huddled under a desk with his brother in their Westgate neighborhood home.
Roark is leading the 40th reunion effort this weekend at Pipal Park. It began Saturday with the official reunion and continues today with an unstructured picnic from noon to dark. Everyone is invited.

"It galvanized us as a community to grow and gain strength," Roark said. "We had this attitude 'If we can make it through this, there is nothing in life that’s insurmountable.' "
World-Herald researcher Jeanne Hauser contributed to this report.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1102,

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