Roofs, skylights, cars and windshields were damaged Tuesday evening as hail pummeled the western Omaha metro area.
The hail damage in Sarpy and Douglas Counties was but one part of a much larger storm that shut down travel in western Nebraska and damaged the University of Nebraska at Kearney campus. The closure of Interstate 80 was extended at mid-morning to include the stretch from Kearney to the Wyoming border.
The storm also claimed the life of a Panhandle woman who had abandoned her snowbound car early Tuesday. Her teenage son, who had set out from home on foot to find her, was found alive in an abandoned farmhouse Tuesday evening.
In Omaha, Scott Farkas said Tuesday evening's hailstorm sounded like machine-gun fire when the stones began striking his home near 144th and Blondo Streets. Over the din, he heard a pop that he thought was an outside light bulb bursting.
To be so lucky.
Instead, when Farkas climbed the stairs to the second floor of his home to look for damage, he found hail strewn through the hallway. Hailstones larger than golf balls had broken the skylight in the bathroom, and the power of the wind had thrown hail down the hallway, he said.
“It's amazing, walking up there and all of a sudden there's hail at the top of the steps,” he said.
Unable to find a contractor who could come out Tuesday night to cover the hole in the skylight, Farkas said the family set out buckets, pails and towels to sop up any additional rain.
“We've been told by everyone they can't get here tonight,” he said.
He wasn't alone.
Road conditions, flight information and forecast info
The Nebraska Highway Patrol advises motorists to avoid the Panhandle, where road crews are slowly working through areas of 6-foot drifts.
As of late Wedneday, morning, Interstate 80 was closed from Kearney to the Wyoming border. Also closed Wednesday morning: Highway 30 from Ogallala to the Wyoming border; Highway 71 from Ogallala south of Crawford to the Colorado line; U.S. 26 north of Bayard to Highway 385; Highway 35 from Bridgeport to Chadron; Highway 88 from Bridgeport to Wyoming; Lincoln 7E from Henningford to Highway 87.
Forecast: While the threat of severe weather is over, cold and wet conditions will linger through Thursday, according to Rick Chermok of the National Weather Service Office in Valley, Neb. The Omaha area will see highs in the mid-30s today, with drizzle, rain and sleet possible late this afternoon or evening. Overnight, Omaha could snow, likely less than and inch. Parts of northeast Nebrasks might get 2 to 4 inches.
Thursday should bring a high of 40, with the chance of light snow or drizzle ending by Thursday night. By Sunday, highs will be in the 60s.
Rain totals at of Wendesday morning
Blair: .93 inches
Columbus: 1.70 inches
Lincoln: .94 inches
Norfolk: 2.17 inches
Omaha-Eppley: 1.75 inches
Omaha-Millard: 1.28 inches
Valley: 1.42 inches
Council Bluffs: .92 inches
Fort Calhoun: 1.13 inches
Fremont: 1.95 inches
Gretna: 1.17 inches
Stanton: 2.97 inches
West Point: 2.76 inches
Little Sioux, Iowa, 3.4 inches
Pictures of hail from around Omaha
Woman found dead after leaving her car
After looking all day Tuesday in Box Butte County, Neb., searchers on snowmobiles found the body of 35-year-old Lisa Conrad in a field about a half-mile west of Highway 385.
Conrad was last heard from around 12:30 a.m. Tuesday, when she called her husband to say she had left her car about a mile south of Berea, where the family lived. She told her husband that she would be walking toward town and that their 19-year-old son, Brandon, would be walking from Berea to meet her.
After finding Conrad's body about 5:40 p.m. MDT, the snowmobilers headed to an abandoned farmhouse about 2˝ miles west of Highway 385, where they found her son alive.
He was taken to Box Butte General Hospital, where he is being treated for hypothermia and frostbite.
“This is a tragic turn of events,” said State Patrol Capt. Mike Gaudreault, Troop E Commander. “The conditions in the area are brutal, and the roads remain impassable.”
Western Nebraska drivers warned to stay off roads
Lt. Jamey Balthazor of the patrol warned others to stay home until the roads were cleared.
“They are the worst driving conditions we have had all year,” he said. “We have abandoned vehicles from Kimball to Chadron. The Department of Roads is trying to do all it can to get the roads cleared.”
High winds associated with the storm damaged buildings at the University of Nebraska-Kearney. The roofs of the Calvin T. Ryan Library and the Fine Arts Building were severely damaged.
The library and an adjacent building were to be closed at least until Thursday and theater rehearsals have been canceled in the Fine Arts Building until further notice.
A Union Pacific official said high winds were suspected in a train derailment near North Bend. Spokesman Mark Davis said 21 empty coal cars headed toward Wyoming left the tracks about 4:45 a.m. Tuesday. They were part of a train of three locomotives and 138 empty coal cars.
The National Weather Service said the derailment was part of the overall damage caused by straight-line winds indicative of a downburst. A downburst occurs when a column of air suddenly rushes down from a thunderstorm, smashes against the ground and then spreads out in all directions.
The National Weather Service estimates that windspeeds from the downburst exceded 100 mph winds, causing a path of damage about one and a half miles wide stretching for about 24 miles between Schuyler and Fremont early Tuesday.
In addition to derailing the coal train tipped over centerpivot irrigation systems, snapped power poles and trees; and destroyed a mobile home. It happened between 3:45 and 5 a.m.
A 'big deal' in Nebraska Panhandle
The spring blizzard that struck western Nebraska was the worst since 1997, said meteorologist Cliff Cole of the National Weather Service in North Platte.
“This storm is a big deal,” he said.
Ice storm warnings were in effect overnight in the area where northwest Iowa meets Minnesota, Nebraska and South Dakota. Flood warnings were in effect in northwest Missouri.
In between, the risk today is a combination of hail, snow, rain and sleet.
Ranchers in western Nebraska, after making it through a fearful night Monday, are hopeful that they dodged a bullet.
Still, Monday was the kind of night when a ranching family prays.
As the storm bore down on them, Rod and Laura Gray and their two sons scrambled to protect their Angus herd in the midst of calving.
“I call it a calf-killer, tree-killer, people-killer spring storm,” said Laura Gray, adding that she and her husband offered up a prayer each time their sons and a high school buddy ventured into the howling wind and swirling snow to rescue newborn calves and their mothers.
The Grays, who ranch near Harrison, escaped with little harm — four calves born, and both men and beasts safe as of Tuesday night.
An extension educator in Keith County, a veterinarian in Chadron and a retired University of Nebraska-Lincoln livestock specialist said Tuesday that they had not yet heard reports of livestock losses.
Terry Mader, retired from UNL and now an industry consultant, warned that losses could come in a few days if young calves stressed by the cold, wet conditions fall ill with diarrhea or respiratory infections.
Doug Anderson, an extension educator for Keith, Arthur and Perkins Counties, reported that temperatures in Ogallala dropped from 71 Monday to 14 Tuesday morning. He said protecting calves from spring storms is part of the job for ranchers.
“This isn't their first rodeo,” he said. “These ranchers have been here 100 years. They've been through this before.”
Valentine matched its record low for Tuesday's date when the temperature dropped to 14.
Melody Benjamin and her son, Rob, who ranch near Lakeside, Neb., moved some of their more vulnerable pregnant heifers into the barn and settled the rest of their herd into the shelter of a wooded lot. A couple of neighbors brought newborn calves into their houses to warm up. Though winds in her area were strong, she reported relatively little snow.
“Where I'm at, this won't even rank in the top storms to remember,” she said, recalling a past spring blizzard when she nursed six shivering calves in her kitchen.
As winds gusted to 60 mph, the Grays worked through Monday to move their animals into areas sheltered from the wind. They gave them extra feed to last until the tempest subsided.
The young men kept watch as the storm intensified, heading into the snow and wind every hour or two to search for new mothers and to bring them and their babies inside.
Gray said the worst seemed to hit at about 3 a.m., when the snow blew at disorienting speeds.
Morning brought relief. Only one of four calves born during the night required the extra warmth of a heated building.
“This storm didn't end up being as bad as some we've had in the past in April and May,” Gray said, reporting about 3˝ inches of snow. “We're doing good.”
This report includes material from the World-Herald News Service and World-Herald staff writers Jay Withrow and Kevin Cole.
Contact the writer:402-473-9581, email@example.com