The Great Plains region has always been known for unpredictable weather and natural disasters – tornadoes, hail storms, blizzards, floods, drought, summer heat and winter cold. Farming on the Great Plains has always been a battle against the weather. But the weather during the 1930s was far beyond the natural cycle of seasons. The weather during the Dust Bowl days set records that still stand in Nebraska history and still stand out in farmers’ memories.
The Hastings Tribune reported that by July 15, 1934, central Nebraska had experienced more than 20 days with temperature over 100 degrees, including one day of 112 degrees. That year was followed by 1935 when Nebraskans experienced one of the worst dust storms ever, followed by a killer flood, then more heat.
Stanley Jensen remembers when his older brother walked over to visit a neighbor about a mile and a half away. A storm blew up, and his parents got worried. The neighbors didn’t have a telephone, so they couldn’t call. “My dad decided to walk over there and tell him to stay there,” says Stanley. “Well, that was a very hairy time because my dad took off in that terrible blizzard walking. He couldn’t call my mother to tell her that he was okay. It could have been a disaster.”
In May 1935, the Republican River valley received several days of heavy rain. The river rose quickly to flood stage. People who had survived years of drought couldn’t believe what was happening and scrambled to rooftops for safety. A wall of water, trees, and debris hit the town of Red Cloud. When it was over, more than 100 people had been killed. After the flood, the heat returned; and in the winter, the blizzards were the worst in memory.
Every year on the Great Plains, tornados roar through. The plains are known – with good reason – as “tornado alley.” The violent twisters have so captured the imaginations of plains residents that even the former U.S. Poet Laureate, Ted Kooser (right), drew on the image of a tornado to explain how writers and poets mine their “Memory” for images to put into their art.
Carla Due (left) tells about surviving a powerful tornado that was so strong, it ripped shredded their cattle barn and moved their horse barn off its foundation.
Millie Opitz (right) thought she was facing a series of tornados – it turned out to be one of the era’s worst dust storms that “looked like a thousand tornadoes.” Millie escaped by taking refuge in her neighbor’s cellar.
Delbert Apetz remembers a snowstorm with winds so strong that he and his brother had to walk backwards on their way home from school. They had taken refuge from the storm under a bridge and were just climbing back up to the road when their father crossed the bridge on his way to get them at school. “And we met there,” says Delbert, “otherwise he’d have been going to the school and couldn’t find us kids.” There were no cell phones to call for help!
Written by Claudia Reinhardt and Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First written and published in 2003.