The windstorm that struck the Omaha metro area July 10 was one of the city’s most damaging on record, said Brian Smith, warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
It was notable for its durability, its power and its breadth, but the results could have been so much worse. No one was killed or seriously injured. That was likely due to it occurring overnight.
Damaging winds blew for 15 to 20 minutes, with some reaching record strength, and the core damage path was 25 miles wide.
To appreciate the reason for the extensive damage, consider this:
• Wind speeds were the measured equivalent of an EF1 tornado, and likely were stronger.
• The widest tornado on record measured 2.6 miles — occurring in Oklahoma in 2013 — and this storm's path was nearly 10 times wider.
The storm, which built strength as it traveled across Nebraska, reached peak intensity on the east side of Douglas County, Smith said. In other words, where some of Omaha’s most densely treed and populated neighborhoods are.
Its peak wind speed in Omaha, 96 mph, matched the weather service’s official record for Omaha for a straight-line wind gust. As the storm barreled through eastern Nebraska, it caused 188,000 power outages in the Omaha Public Power District’s territory, the most ever.
Winds reached hurricane force elsewhere, including along Interstate 80 in central Nebraska and around cities like Cozad, Kearney, Alliance, Fremont, Plattsmouth and Falls City.
Power was out in many areas, and at least one community lost cellphone service, according to reports to the National Weather Service.
Those reports indicate that a tree fell on a house and trapped a family in Tilden, Nebraska. The wind blew over a camper with someone in it near Fort Calhoun. Semis and campers were blown over on I-80, where the dust was so bad that visibility had dropped to near zero. Railcars were knocked over south of Glenwood, Iowa.
Several cars were crushed by trees, roofs were damaged on homes and businesses, and a number of grain bins were damaged, including one holding 20,000 bushels of corn.
No injuries were reported in those instances, either.
That couldn’t be said of a likely more powerful but smaller straight-line windstorm that struck the Omaha area on June 27, 2008.
That storm killed two people in Council Bluffs when a tree fell on the car they were sitting in. The storm, which occurred on a Friday during rush hour, sent scrambling those who had gathered at Omaha’s Memorial Park for one of the summer’s marquee events.
The 2008 storm caused about $50 million in damage, said Matt Elliott, warning coordination meteorologist at the national Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma. The costs of this month’s storm will come into sharper focus when local officials complete their application for federal disaster aid.
Wind records are tricky.
Elliott said Omaha likely has had stronger straight-line winds than the official record of 96 mph, but they weren’t captured by official sensors.
A fairly reliable but unofficial sensor captured a 104 mph wind gust in Douglas County during a June 16, 2017, storm. And a survey by the weather service found damage indicative of straight-line winds as strong as 115 mph with the 2008 storm, Elliott said.
Until this month’s storm, the 2008 windstorm had been the most damaging in OPPD’s history, causing 156,000 outages, some lasting seven days. The core damage path was about 6 to 8 miles wide, Smith said.
With this month’s storm, damaging winds blew for about 20 minutes, and winds of at least 70 mph blew for about six minutes, according to Smith and his colleague, Brian Burjenbruch.
Winds of 74 mph or greater are considered “significant” and “hurricane strength.”
While many people might believe that a tornado accompanied the storm, there’s no sign of that, Smith said. But it’s not uncommon to have pockets of especially bad damage, such as occurred at Elmwood Park, he said.
“Having winds like these are infrequent, which makes people jump to the conclusions that it had to be a tornado that caused the damage,” he said.
Elliott said storms on this scale typically happen once or twice a year somewhere in the central Great Plains. The key is whether they hit a populated area like Omaha. And while this windstorm didn’t reach the technical definition of a derecho, a long-lived, damaging straight-line windstorm, it had all the markings of one, Elliott said. Last year’s derecho in Iowa was the most damaging thunderstorm in U.S. history.
There’s a lesson worth learning from this storm, Elliott said. These kinds of windstorms have a tendency to occur after people have already gone to bed. For that reason, it’s good to pay attention to forecasts of overnight thunderstorms and to have a means of being alerted to dangerous weather.
“This (storm) should really reinforce that you can get really widespread damage at midnight,” he said. “People tend to focus on tornadoes, rightfully so, but these significant wind events can cause significant damage. It’s just as important to heed these warnings.”