Every state has seen its share of good fortune…and its share of tragedy. These disasters shook the state and became part of our history as some of the most devastating natural events in Nebraska.
1. The Year of the Locust, 1874
Life in Nebraska in the late 19th century was already difficult. Many families barely got by on what their farms and hunting could provide. But life was made infinitely more difficult in the summer of 1874 when enormous swarms of Rocky Mountain Locusts descended on the Great Plains like giant black clouds.
The locusts were so thick they blocked out the sun for several hours in some places. They consumed everything in their way that summer, from field crops to tree fruits to curtains and other textiles. Some Nebraskans who were faced with starvation eventually turned to eating the bugs to survive. Others abandoned their homesteads, and still others stayed until the bitter end and died of starvation.
2. 1888 "Children's Blizzard"
January 12, 1888 was unseasonably warm in Nebraska, and many parents sent their children to bundled up just a little less than normal. Just a week earlier, snowstorms and a bitter cold snap had rolled through the area. The warm day made children hopeful for an early spring, but what happened instead was tragic.
With hardly any warning, a blizzard overtook Nebraska in the early afternoon. Children were still at school and adults were still at work; the extreme blowing snow and freezing temperatures (which were said to crystallize the moisture in one's eyes and nose immediately upon contact) made visibility next to zero. Some schoolteachers tried to lead their charges to safety, but those efforts typically led to the deaths of the children and/or teachers. A total of 235 people perished in the storm. A mural of Nebraska teacher Minnie Freeman hangs in the capitol building; it shows her successfully leading her 13 students to safety in her home.
3. The Easter Sunday Tornado in Omaha, 1913
At around 6 p.m. on Easter Sunday in 1913, a massive tornado measuring from 1/4 mile to 1/2 mile across ripped through Omaha. The Fujita scale (the scale used to measure the strength of a tornado) had not yet been invented, but looking back on the documentation of the storm, experts have rated it as as F-4 or possibly an F-5. 135 people in Nebraska lost their lives that day and countless homes and buildings were completely destroyed.
4. The 1949 Blizzard
One of Nebraska's worst blizzards on record was in the winter of 1948-1949. Harvest had been good that year so families were hopeful that the winter would be mild. Those hopes were dashed when the first blizzard rolled through in November 1948, dropping 24 inches of snow in some places. The snow had been largely cleaned up when the big storm hit on January 2, 1949. Reports state that some parts of Nebraska were buried under 100 inches of snow, and a particular part of Antelope County had drifts reaching up to 30 feet in height. The storm was widely considered to be one of the worst to ever hit the state, and the National Guard was called in to help drop supplies to the hundreds of thousands of people trapped in their homes. The National Guard effort saved the lives of more than 4 million head of cattle and rescued over 200,000 stranded people. Families burned furniture and anything else flammable to stay warm. All told, 76 people died in those brutal winter conditions.
5. The 1975 Omaha Tornado
Tornado sirens sounded in the Omaha area in the early evening of May 6, 1975. At around 4:30 pm, a tornado touched down in Sarpy County and then moved into Omaha where it would cause massive damage. The tornado's path extended for approximately 10 miles, completely decimating hundreds of buildings and severely damaging thousands more. Recorded as an F-4 storm, the tornado caused three deaths in Omaha and hundreds of injuries.
6. The 1976 Explosion of the Hotel Pathfinder in Fremont
January 10, 1976 is a dark day in Fremont's history. At around 9:30 in the morning, the historic Hotel Pathfinder exploded in a fireball that would resonate throughout the area. An underground natural gas leak ignited, causing a massive, deadly explosion. Bricks and concrete were thrown into buildings across the street; surrounding businesses were severely damaged. Worst of all, 20 people were killed and more than 40 were injured. The heroic firefighters, however, prevented many more deaths and injuries by bravely rescuing people stranded in the upper stories of the building and buried in the rubble beneath it.
Please note: a legally usable photo of the Hotel Pathfinder could not be located; the above image is of a different fire. For some on-the-scene pictures and a more detailed story, visit
The Fremont Tribune.
7. June 3, 1980: The Night of the Twisters in Grand Island
Seven tornadoes terrorized Grand Island and surrounding areas on June 3, 1980. The largest of these was an F-4 that leveled everything it came into contact with. The tornadoes only moved at around 8 MPH, giving them plenty of time to be incredibly destructive. Five people died in the storms and hundreds were injured. After the storms had passed, whatever debris couldn't be disposed of in any other way were dumped into a 200-foot-diameter hole in the landfill which eventually grew over with grass. Today, the nearly 40 foot high hill is a popular place for sledding in the winter.
In a centrally-located state with sometimes-volatile weather, Nebraska is bound to see its share of natural disasters at times. These are some of the worst the state has ever seen (yes, we’re counting a gas explosion as a “natural disaster” although the gas company was found at fault for the leak). What other natural disasters can you remember from Nebraska’s history? Let us know in the comments.