Lincoln escapes storm's devastation

2012-04-16T23:55:00Z Lincoln escapes storm's devastationBy ALGIS J. LAUKAITIS / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com

The blare of tornado sirens late Saturday sent many Lincoln residents rushing toward the safety of bathtubs and basements, but it set others wondering.

At least in south Lincoln, all was calm.

The worry was understandable. Since Friday, there had been a barrage of alerts issued for a potentially lethal storm system capable of spawning dozens of tornadoes -- with Lincoln in the storm's bull's-eye.

The Weather Channel's Jim Cantore, rock star of meteorologists, spent the day here.

Fortunately, nothing more serious resulted than several inches of rain.

So, were the repeated, aggressive warnings and two full-city siren blasts necessary? Weather experts say yes.

Lincoln was fortunate.

The sirens sounded after a trained observer spotted a funnel cloud near the Lincoln Airport. The National Weather Service office in Valley issued a tornado warning for northern Lancaster County at about 11:30 p.m., meteorologist Van DeWald said.

"A funnel cloud can touch down at any time. There was a serious threat with that," he said.

Lancaster County Emergency Manager Doug Ahlberg said he sounded the sirens based on the weather service's warning, the observations of trained spotters and an image taken by the infrared camera mounted on the rooftop of his building at 233 S. 10th St.

"We saw a lowering of a cloud formation near the airport," Ahlberg said.

Sirens sounded all over the city, Ahlberg said, because he doesn't have the capability of isolating one part of Lincoln.

Lancaster County's network of 117 sirens is divided into five zones: two in the north part of the county, two in the south part of the county and one in Lincoln, he said.

"I would love to set them off one at a time, but you can't," Ahlberg said.

Said UNL climatologist Ken Dewey: "My question of the public is: Do they want us to wait until there is an actual tornado tearing through town injuring and killing people before we do the sirens, or would they rather be safe than sorry?"

The massive storm system that forecasters predicted lived up to its advanced billing elsewhere. More than 100 tornadoes were reported from Oklahoma through Kansas, Nebraska and southern Iowa on Saturday, according to the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla.

The deadliest of the tornadoes ravaged the town of Woodward, Okla., where six people were killed and 30 injured.

Another tornado tore through the southern part of Wichita, Kan., causing significant damage but no major injuries.

Closer to home, at least nine tornadoes were confirmed in Nebraska.

Otoe County Emergency Manager Greg Goebel said six homes were damaged north of Nebraska City, three of them severely. There were no fatalities or injuries, he said.

A large metal shed containing tractors, graders and other equipment also was damaged at nearby Kimmel Orchard and Vineyard, along with more than 150 apple and cherry trees.

DeWald said the damage probably was caused by the same tornado that devasted Thurman, Iowa, a town of about 250 people across the Missouri River from Plattsmouth and Nebraska City. An EF-2 tornado, with wind speeds as high as 135 mph, ripped trough the town, damaging 75 to 90 percent of the homes.

Gary Petersen, emergency management director for Seward and York counties, still was checking into damage reports Monday, including to some farmsteads in the Pleasant Dale area.

"I think probably we lost a couple of outbuildings, but we can't determine yet if it was high winds or tornadic activity," Petersen said.

A tornado damaged a concession stand on a ball field on the east edge of Sterling and uprooted trees shortly before 5 p.m. Saturday, the weather service reported.

About the same time, another tornado -- with peak winds estimated at 135 mph -- destroyed a homestead near Cook, uprooted trees and snapped power poles.

"This was a very close call," DeWald said. "Had that developed 35 miles to the north ... we could have had an F2 tornado moving through Lincoln."

What saved Lincoln was rain, which cooled the air and prevented a front packed with warm Gulf air from moving farther north, DeWald said. It was the same rain that led to the cancellation of the Huskers' spring game Saturday.

"Were it not for the fact that we had mid-day rain which cooled the atmosphere in Southeast Nebraska and stabilized it, we could have had many tornadoes in Nebraska as well," Dewey said.

Instead, the front stayed farther south and produced tornadoes with long paths of destruction in Kansas well into the night, he said.

"Lincoln should be grateful and happy that that happened and not disappointed that there were sirens and they had to take cover," Dewey said. "If the air had not been rain-cooled, there would have been a tornado on the ground."

Dewey is concerned people will become complacent and not heed the sirens next time.

"We still have a long tornado season ahead of us," he said.

Reach Algis J. Laukaitis at 402-473-7243 or alaukaitis@journalstar.com.

Art Hovey contributed to this story.

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