A large wall of dust, known as a haboob, swept over parts of Nebraska Thursday afternoon, creating near-zero visibility on state highways.
A haboob occurs when dust is kicked up shortly before a thunderstorm moves in. A downdraft of cold air reaches the ground and kicks up dust, creating a dust wall that moves quickly and turns the sky pitch-black, according to Jordan Thies, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Hastings.
"If conditions are dry enough and winds are strong enough, it can make for a pretty ominous sight," Thies said.
Wind gusts of 89 mph were recorded in Ord. In other parts of the state, 60 to 70 mph winds carried the haboob forward.
Western Nebraska — which is in the grip of severe drought — was most impacted by the dust storm. Parts of South Dakota, Iowa and Minnesota were also clouded in dust as severe thunderstorms rolled through the region.
"Conditions were primed for blowing dust in Western Nebraska," Thies said. "Severe drought can definitely lead to an uptick in this kind of weather."
12 of the deadliest disasters in Nebraska history
The Schoolhouse Blizzard of 1888, 235 deaths
The Schoolhouse Blizzard or Children's Blizzard of 1888 claimed 235 lives, 213 of them children — nearly half of those deaths were in Nebraska.
"The storm was especially deadly because it came on without warning during the day, when adults were at work and children were at school," the Farmers' Almanac account says. "In addition, the morning had started out relatively warm, and many people left the house without adequate clothing for the subzero chill they would soon be forced to endure. Thousands of people, many of them schoolchildren, were caught in the blizzard and had difficulty finding their way home in the blinding snow."
This photograph shows a row of buildings at Fort Niobrara half hidden behind piles of snow that fell in the Schoolhouse Blizzard. An oil lantern sits atop a pole in the middle of the snow.
Easter tornado of 1913, 103 deaths
The tornado that killed 103 people in Omaha on Easter Sunday, March 23, 1913, cut a quarter-mile-wide to half-mile-wide path through densely populated residential neighborhoods.
"It was a balmy spring day … There was little advance warning. Except a sharp fall of the barometer and temperature; it came and went within a few seconds, giving people scarcely time to get to their cellars," a National Weather Service account of the storm said. The storm destroyed 800 homes and damaged another 2,000 houses.
Republican River Flood of 1935, 94 deaths
A National Weather Service account lists the 1935 Republican River flood as the top flood in Nebraska history, with 94 deaths, 341 miles of highway destroyed and 307 bridges damaged or destroyed.
On May 30, 1935, "as much as 18-24 inches of rain fell in eastern Colorado and southwestern Nebraska. By early morning of the 31st, the usually peaceful Republican River was running bluff-to-bluff along its upper reaches," the Weather Service account said. "Everything in the water's path, including buildings, livestock, trees, snakes and people, were washed down the river. There are many stories of people clinging to trees until they could be rescued."
The town of Cambridge was most affected, with an estimated three-fourths of houses flooded.
Floods of 1950, 25 deaths
Four floods from May to July of 1950 caused 25 deaths, according to a National Weather Service report.
The flood of May 8-9 was the worst, with 23 deaths and 60,000 acres of land under water. The Little Nemaha River, Salt Creek, Weeping Water Creek and tributaries of the Big Blue River were over their banks. June 2-3 brought flooding on Beaver, Shell and Union creeks, with the town of Madison inundated.
Floods on tributaries of the west fork of the Big Blue River, such as Beaver Creek, flooded most of Beaver Crossing and a large swath of York on July 8-10. Serious damage was reported down to Beatrice. The fourth flood of 1950 was July 18-19 on the Loup River, Shell Creek and Beaver Creek.
Blizzard of 1949, 20+ deaths
The Blizzard of 1949 (pictured are civilian pilots delivering food to rural residents near Curtis) was actually a series of severe winter storms that began in November. Some areas of Nebraska had more than 100 inches of snow that winter, and Antelope County was reported to have had 30-foot snowdrifts that didn't melt until June. There were at least 20 deaths in the Jan. 2-3 blizzard alone in Nebraska; millions of cattle were at risk as well.
According to the account on the Wessels Living History Farm website, the winter was so bad that "w
hen the supply of coal and fuel ran out, some rural families burned furniture to stay warm. Pilots dropped groceries to stranded ranch families. When the electricity went out, families 'refrigerated' their milk and cream in snowdrifts."
1976 Fremont hotel explosion, 20 deaths
The Hotel Pathfinder explosion on Jan. 10, 1976, in Fremont killed 20 people and injured more than 40. It also changed the face of downtown.
"I went down to Broad Street and looked down toward the hotel, and it looked like a war zone," said Judy Nelson of Fremont, daughter of one of the victims.
The blast was blamed on an underground gas coupling that pulled apart, and Northern Natural Gas Co. was found liable, the Fremont Tribune report said.
1913 Yutan tornado, 20 deaths
On the same day (April 23, 1913) the deadliest tornado in Nebraska history hit Omaha, another twister destroyed the northern half of Yutan, killing 17 people. Three others were killed near the town, the National Weather Service said.
"One Yutan woman reportedly was carried a full quarter-mile in her home before it came down. Amazingly, she was unharmed," a past Journal Star article said.
The storm took only 35 minutes to cover 40 miles of Nebraska.
Dewey hotel fire of 1913, 20 deaths
Omaha's Dewey hotel caught fire on Feb. 28, 1913, killing an estimated 20 people.
"So rapidly did the flames spread that the first firemen to arrive could only penetrate the first floor and were then forced to retreat, leaving the groaning, terrified victims who died with safety almost in reach," a United Press account said of the tragedy.
Frozen hydrants and ice on hoses and ladders hurt firefighting efforts. The Associated Press reported that about 10,000 people kept vigil outside the hotel, at 13th and Farnam, after the fire. The hotel was found to have inadequate fire escapes.
1947 Republican River flood, 13 deaths
In June 1947, 8 inches of rain fell in 24 hours in the Medicine Creek basin north of Cambridge, a weather service account of the flood said. The water spilled into the Republican basin, causing flash flooding down to Orleans.
"Despite residents' chopping holes in the roofs of their homes to escape the rapidly rising water, 13 people still perished in the area from Cambridge to Orleans," the National Weather Service account says.
The Medicine Creek Dam was constructed upstream of Cambridge in 1948-49 to help prevent such disasters from happening again.
1913 Berlin tornado, 12 deaths
The same killer storm system that fed the tornadoes in Omaha and Yutan spawned a twister that hit Berlin -- now Otoe -- on March 23, 1913.
The Berlin tornado began 4 miles south of Douglas in southwest Otoe County. Traveling northeast, it leveled farm after farm as it passed two miles northwest of Syracuse before hitting Berlin, where it killed 12 people, according to the National Weather Service.
The Nebraska Daily Press summed up the damage: “Where stood a happy, prosperous and contented village of some 300 people, there remains but two dwelling houses, partly in ruins, now temporary hospitals for those were were severely injured in the storm of Sunday night, which literally swept an Otoe County town off the map.”
Millard hotel fire of 1933, 7 deaths
The fire on Feb. 8, 1933, caused the death of seven firefighters when the hotel walls collapsed. Firefighters battled the blaze in temperatures of 15 below zero. The historic hotel at 13th and Douglas was a complete loss, but all guests were safe.
The Omaha Mid-West Hotel Reporter had this account: "As this is written shortly after noon Thursday, there are seven firemen dead and one missing, probably buried in the ruins. In addition there are 14 firemen in the several hospitals, several in serious condition due to falls and the collapse of walls and floors. Frozen fingers, feet and faces added to the general distress."
1930s Dust Bowl, deaths estimated in the thousands
Perhaps the biggest natural disaster in Nebraska history was the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, and Nebraska wasn't even the epicenter of the devastation. Some people lost their way in the black clouds of dust and died in accidents. But victims estimated in the thousands succumbed to dust pneumonia and other ailments thought to have originated from the harsh conditions.
In Nebraska from 1936 to 1939, farmers were said to have lost $112 million in crops to the drought and more than $30 million to the grasshoppers, according to a column from historian Jim McKee. Populations decreased in many rural areas, the number of farms plummeted by as much as 50 percent and marriage and birth rates dropped to their lowest levels in decades.
Video: Schoolhouse Blizzard of 1888
Braniff Airways crash in 1966, 42 deaths
The Braniff International Airways BAC 1-11 crashed near Falls City on Aug. 6, 1966, and all 42 people on board died. The stakes in the ground mark the location where a body was found.
From a Journal Star article:
The final minutes of Braniff Airways Flight 250 were captured by voice recorders.
At 11:02 p.m. on Aug. 6, 1966, somewhere above the Nebraska-Kansas border, the co-pilot said: “It’s getting a little rough.”