Ten years ago, a late October snowstorm blew in from the Rockies, swept across the Great Plains, dumped up to 2 feet of snow in parts of Southeast Nebraska — and left Lincoln in shambles.
Some people thought they heard gunshots, but it was the sound of tree limbs snapping under the weight of more than 13 inches of heavy, wet snow. Branches fell on yards, houses, cars, streets and power lines.
By morning — a Sunday — Lincoln looked like a war zone.
People couldn’t drive because snow, power lines and tree limbs blocked many streets. Churches canceled services. Schools and businesses closed. Hundreds of miles of roads — including 180 miles of Interstate 80 — were impassable.
Thirteen people died in the storm that blanketed seven states. Two storm-related deaths were reported in Nebraska.
In terms of damage, it was probably Lincoln’s worst snowstorm.
Homes were cold and dark. More than 55,000 Lincoln Electric System customers lost power, some for up to eight days. And at least 150,000 customers reported outages in Southeast Nebraska.
After the storm, the city was a graveyard of limbs and branches.
“In just driving the city, I do not see one single tree that has escaped this storm,” City Forester Steve Schwab said at the time.
City and private tree-trimming crews and residents hauled tons of tree debris to dump sites, like the parking lot of Star City Shores, where five tub grinders churned 30-foot-tall brush piles into mulch.
LES spent nearly $4.3 million to recover. The city spent up to $1.5 million to replant 5,000 trees it lost along streets and on other public property.
Homeowners spent money, too, hiring tree removers, repairing roofs, buying chainsaws, snowblowers and electric generators — and planting trees in the spring.
The perfect storm
The likelihood that such a storm could happen again is remote.
Just look at the trees.
It’s late October, but most still have leaves. Most years, they are gone by now.
“This is the same situation as 10 years ago,” said Ken Dewey, a climatologist with UNL’s School of Natural Resources.
If trees had dropped their leaves earlier, the damage from the ‘97 storm would have been significantly less, he said. Leaves snagged snow and weighed down branches, forcing them to bend and break.
Other factors came into play, too, in what Dewey called a perfect storm.
The storm blasted Colorado and other mountain states on Friday, Oct. 24, and reached eastern Nebraska late the next day.
As it moved across the Plains, it pulled up warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico and ushered cold air down from the Arctic. The temperature was about 33 or 34 degrees.
Two degrees warmer and it would have rained; two degrees colder and we would have had dry, powder-like snow.
“There’s a small range of how things had to occur and they fell together perfectly,” Dewey said.
Forecasters were not caught off guard, he said. They predicted the storm but couldn’t anticipate what the temperature would be to “one degree” or the amount of heat and moisture the storm pulled up from the Gulf.
LES calls for help
When the storm hit the night of Oct. 25, Terry Bundy had been the CEO of LES for only two months.
He was at home when he noticed the lights blinking — not a good sign. He went outside and didn’t like what he saw: an eerie, green glow and lightning flashes.
“You could just hear the tree limbs popping and cracking up and down the street.”
Bundy drove to the LES Service Center and found the place already buzzing. Bill Darrah, assistant vice president of the operations division at the time, was on the phone, asking other utilities for help.
From years of experience, he knew it was going to be a bad storm.
“There was just no way we could do this alone,” Bundy said. “They (other utilities) sent whatever they could spare.”
More than 40 utilities responded to LES’ call. Crews poured into Lincoln from smaller towns like Oxford and St. Paul, and from larger cities across the state.
LES made other moves, too, in its recovery efforts:
* Super crews. LES officials assembled tree removers, linemen, construction workers and other staff to restore power as self-contained teams. The move ensured the most customers in an area had power before a crew left.
* Experienced workers. Bundy said LES employees averaged 16 hours a day; some came in without waiting to be called.
* A temporary decision by LES and city officials to forgo the usual inspection and allow LES crews to attach power lines to homes. The move saved time and money because customers didn’t have to hire electricians.
* Pole inspection program. LES lost only 77 poles during the storm and credited its annual inspection and treatment program for the low number of broken poles.
* Computerized mapping. Custom maps showed crews what needed to be done in an area, allowing them to focus on the task instead of calling supervisors.
Bundy says the utility has made changes over the past 10 years and is in better shape to tackle a similar storm.
“But when you get down to the bottom line, there is no way we can avoid this type of extensive damage if another storm comes through,” he said. “It will physically take you days to reconstruct the system.”
Ten years ago, LES had eight incoming lines and added 12 more during the storm.
Soon after, LES installed an automated system to handle outage calls for customers and to identify problem areas. The system can handle 1,600 calls per minute.
Ten years ago, cell phones were not as common. Bundy recalled a Cellular One employee walking in with a bag of cell phones asking, “Can you use these?”
Today, LES maximizes the use of cell phones during storms.
After the ‘97 storm, some people called on LES to bury more of its overhead lines.
The utility found the conversion would cost $520 million in 1998 dollars. That translated to an 18 percent rate increase over 20 years.
Bundy said LES invests between $250,000 and $500,000 annually to bury overhead lines. Developers of subdivisions are required to bury electrical lines. Today, about 68 percent of the system is underground, said LES spokesman Russ Reno.
Doug Ahlberg was not yet the head of Lancaster County Emergency Management in 1997, but he’s since worked to update the emergency operations plan and add support and equipment.
For example: The agency now has at its disposal 60 radio-equipped, four-wheel-drive vehicles, owned by Lincoln Amateur Radio Club members. They could be used to haul doctors, deliver medicine or take meals to shut-ins.
Police, sheriff and other agencies have added four-wheel-drive vehicles, too.
Ahlberg, who was directing storm recovery at the police department in October 1997, said flexibility was a key component of recovery.
City and county officials adapted and directed “the right resources to the right locations,” he said.
Others helped, too, like garbage haulers who pitched in by removing tree debris free of charge.
A few years ago, Emergency Management officials conducted a “table top” exercise of the storm. Ahlberg said the coordination and flexibility among agencies was still there, even though there were many new faces.
“It seemed liked the lessons learned were lessons retained.”
Ahlberg said his agency has added a mobile operations center, and its budget has doubled since 1997.
The city replaced the 5,000 trees it lost during the storm in the ensuing five years but needs to do more to maintain a healthy community forest, said city forester Schwab.
Trees not only have aesthetic value but also can help cool the city during the summer and lower electricity and water bills.
The city’s budget problems have curtailed tree-planting efforts in recent years.
The city spends about $30,000 a year to plant trees, he said, but that’s enough money for about 122 trees.
Most of those are planted in older neighborhoods to fill in gaps left by the ‘97 storm.
After 10 years, Schwab still can find storm damage — jagged stubs from broken limbs — on some trees, such as pin oaks.
But overall, he believes Lincoln’s trees have recovered.
When asked if seeing leaves on the trees in late October makes him a little nervous, Schwab replied:
“If we would get 13 inches of snow, we would be possibly back to another 1997 occurrence.”
Reach Algis Laukaitis at (402) 473-7243 or email@example.com.