35 Years Ago Today My Fate Was Sealed

1975 was the year that cemented my future as a meteorologist.  First there was the Blizzard of ’75 that occurred on January 10th back in my home state of Nebraska.  Over a foot of snow and 60 mph winds shut down my city of Omaha and I was out of school for a week!  The snow fort that I built was epic.

Following that was a late March tornado that surprised everyone.  It was a relatively small storm that tore up a few houses on the far west side of Omaha.  I remember the sirens sounding only after the storm had come and gone.  The interesting thing about that day was that there was a winter storm watch in effect and we were preparing for snow.  Never mind that temperatures were in the 70s.  Funny how that weather stuff can turn on a dime sometimes.  That little twister was nothing compared to the monster that would hit the city a little more than a month later.

If I wasn’t a full-fledged weather weeny by that time, the Tornado of ’75 certainly turned me into one.  On May 6th, 1975, an F4 tornado spent 29 minutes tearing through a good chunk of my hometown of Omaha, Nebraska.  It touched down in the southwest part of the city at 4:29 pm and lifted shortly before 5:00 pm just a few miles from my house.  I’ll never forget the sight of a sky full of debris as the remnant wall cloud passed over my neighborhood.

Despite winds of nearly 200 mph, and a track that took it through a heavily populated part of Omaha, only three people died.  The National Weather Service issued a tornado warning at 4:15 pm, nearly 15 minutes before the tornado hit.  People had time to get to their basements.  The afternoon rush hour had not built to its full capacity, and schools were already out for the day.

In what could have been a monumental tragedy, the tornado narrowly missed the Ak-Sar-Ben horse racing track, whose grandstands were filled with nearly 16,000 people enjoying the afternoon races.  This picture was one of several that the track photographer snapped as the storm passed just west of the facility:

You can see people on the left side of the picture watching in amazement.  Imagine if the storm had hit the grandstand.  As it turned out, the tornado was the costliest in United States history at that time.  Even today it ranks third on that list behind the OKC tornado of 1999, and the Wichita Falls, Texas tornado of 1979.

Days later my dad took me to see the damage.  I was in awe, and I knew right then that weather was where it was at for me.  I had always been fascinated with weather, and I was just plain scared to death of bad storms, but my future was sealed on that day.  Of course I had lots of support along the way from a mom who would not let me give up when the college courses were kicking my butt.  I’m glad she kept pushing me. 

So here I am 35 years later, working in the tornado capital of the world.  I take the responsibility that I have to give you and your family fair warning very seriously.  It’s not just a job to me.  It’s more like a commitment.  The events of 1975 sealed something in my DNA that keep my passionate and interested in weather even after all these years.



4 Responses

  1. Great post. I share your awe and fascination.

  2. Geat reflection! Something about living in the midwest keeps you in awe of the weather, especially tornados. It’s like osmosis– the weather conditions seep into you and you become passionate about this natural phenomenon. Thank you for being committed in keeping your viewers safe!

  3. Dear Rick,
    I really enjoyed reading your story. I am impressed you have dedicated your life to a field which has often proven to save lives, sometimes many. I also share your fascination about weather phenomena. I have never seen a short series done on a local channel about weather oddities. I wonder if this is something you could consider?
    Best wishes,
    Robert Stemmons

  4. Being from Washington state and having made Oklahoma my home four years ago, I no longer ignore weather reports. I personally do not like tornadoes and living in a mobile home without a storm shelter, I consider potential severe weather a serious threat to me and my family. So at 2 am when I turn on the tv in a storm, there’s Rick all over the situation. A relief, your integrity and competence is highly appreciated and valued Rick. Keep up the good work channel 5!

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