Technology and the Easter Tornado
One of the most infamous of tornadoes in Iowa (and Nebraska) history is the one or ones that occurred on Easter, March 23, 1913. In Shelby County one funnel cloud touched down 3 miles south of Harlan, heading northeast. Another funnel cloud touched down southeast of Defiance and moved through parts of Westphalia and Union townships.
The storm had already killed 94 in Omaha and demolished 600 houses there, partially damaging or fully destroying another 1129 homes. Seventeen were killed in Council Bluffs; two in Weston, two in Gilliat, three in Neola, five in Mills County, and four in Harrison County.
In Shelby County, Postmaster Reynolds had been phoning his assistant at the post office, asking for readings from the weather service barometer located there. When he heard the results—low pressure significantly below normal–he knew that Shelby County was in the middle of a danger zone. He also knew the numbers. On March 22 it had been 7 degrees (F). At 7 p.m. on March 23, it was 70 degrees. The telephone and the barometer provided Shelby County residents more forewarning than they had had in 1877. But this massive storm with multiple funnel clouds was enormously destructive just the same.
It damaged a significant amount of property in the county: barn after barn, fence after fence, house after house, schoolhouse after schoolhouse, store after store. While people hunkered in their cellars, sparing their lives, their houses lifted off over their heads. Some, like the Campbell’s, even saw an unfortunate horse caught in the whirlwind. The Campbell’s were, in fact, lucky—doubly so. They had not been aware of the warnings and were not in their cellar, yet they survived the destruction of their house. “The baby was carried from Mrs. Campbell’s arms and dropped in the orchard. It was found unhurt afterward. Their escape was little less then miraculous,” writes historian White. Though Dr. Smith was called to the Campbell place, none of the family was seriously hurt. The doctor did report that the family “suffered from fright and exposure.”
“It seems wonderful,” continues White, writing just two years after the storm, “that there was not a very serious loss of life [in Shelby County]. The destructive character of the storm made it easily possible that there might have been fifty or one hundred lives lost. The cellars were used a great deal and this accounts for the saving of many lives. Only about two dozen animals were killed.” Though technology played a role in this protection of human life, it is worth noting that “telephone lines were badly twisted and broken” by the storm.
Human communications and other infrastructure were and are subject to extreme weather, be it wind, water, fire, heat, cold or some combination.
Source: SHSI: Edward A. White, “Past and Present of Shelby County, Iowa,” Indianapolis, 1915.