An unusual cloud of Saharan dust is expected to linger over eastern Nebraska and Iowa into Tuesday, according to federal scientists who track weather and air pollution.
Visibility, air quality, peak temperatures and perhaps even cloud cover have all been affected in the Omaha metro area by the dust, scientists say.
Dr. Linda Ford of the Asthma and Allergy Center in Bellevue said the dust can’t move out fast enough.
“We had a busy day,” she said Monday, with patients calling about itchy, red and watery eyes, congestion, gunk draining down their throats and greater difficulty breathing. As of Monday evening, her patients had simply taken more of their usual medication and she hadn’t had to put anyone on steroids.
“It would have been worse if not for the coronavirus,” she said. “People would have been outside. A lot of people are still staying home.”
The thickest dust occurred Sunday. Lesser amounts occurred Monday and are forecast Tuesday. But even at those reduced levels, it’s enough to cause difficulty for people with compromised respiratory systems, Ford said. The best thing patients can do is to stay on their medication, she said.
“If it blows out Tuesday, that would be wonderful,” she said.
Taylor Nicolaisen, meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said the worst is over. “We might just see some light stuff continuing off and on.”
On Sunday, air quality deteriorated in eastern Nebraska and southwest Iowa when southerly winds carried dust up from the Gulf of Mexico where it had lingered for several days after traveling across the Atlantic Ocean. The EPA’s AirNow Air Quality Index for Omaha registered 140 Sunday afternoon, a sign that people with respiratory and heart problems would likely have difficulties from its effects. That was just shy of the 151 threshold at which the general public begins to notice respiratory discomfort.
It’s not uncommon for Saharan dust to drift across the Atlantic Ocean, said Frank Pereira, meteorologist with the Storm Prediction Center, a sister agency to the weather service. That’s because winds near the equator typically blow east to west, the opposite of the usual west-to-east winds seen in the U.S.
These so-called trade winds were what ferried Christopher Columbus and his three ships to the Americas. Likewise, each spring and summer they carry Saharan dust westward every three to five days, Pereira said. The dust is generated this time of year because this is when dry air usually moves across the Sahara, he said.
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The “clouds” can contain a stunning amount of dust, occupying about a 2- to 2.5-mile-thick space in the atmosphere. The dust traveled some 5,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean and arrived in the southern U.S. last week, Pereira said. The next batch moving across the ocean doesn’t appear as thick, he said.
Nicolaisen said Sunday’s dust is probably why the day’s high was a few degrees lower than expected in Omaha. And it may be why Monday was cloudier than expected in the metro area, he said.
For clouds to form, water vapor needs to stick to something, in this case dust, he said.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if (Monday’s) clouds weren’t little bit dirtier than normal,” Nicolaisen said.
A car-themed first birthday party might be in the works for new Omaha resident Dreshon West Jr.
Dreshon was born in the car last week while his parents were on their way to Methodist Women’s Hospital in west Omaha.
Mom Danessia was surprised at the baby’s early arrival. He wasn’t due for nearly three more weeks.
The 21-year-old said she felt some cramps on the night of June 23 but chalked it up to her being active that day.
She woke up about 2 a.m. feeling uncomfortable, but she still wasn’t sure whether she was having contractions. By 5 a.m., she woke up her fiancé, Dreshon West, 23.
They packed up the car outside their home near 90th and Maple Streets and grabbed 16-month-old son Ethan before heading to the hospital.
“Is the hospital off of 168th Street?” Dreshon West asked of Methodist Women’s, which actually is off 192nd.
“Yeah,” Danessia told him, not quite registering the question as he took the 168th Street exit off the West Dodge Expressway.
But it didn’t matter. They weren’t going to make it to the hospital.
Danessia said she could feel the baby’s head. Staying calm, she leaned the seat back, kicked up her legs on the dashboard and delivered the baby. She swaddled the crying child in her jogging pants and held him to her chest.
“I didn’t really have time to process,” she said Monday. “It all just came naturally.”
She peeked back at Ethan, who had stayed quiet during the ordeal. He flashed a smile at her and his new baby brother.
Dreshon kept driving. He wanted to reach the hospital in case there were any complications.
“It was a memorable moment,” Dreshon said. “But at the same time, I was still in that dad mode that we had to get to the hospital.”
Hospital staff met them at the car and whisked Mom and baby inside. Dreshon cleaned out the car — a Hyundai Accent — later.
At home, they have been adjusting to becoming a family of four. Big brother Ethan likes the new baby. He always wants to touch his hair or tiny feet, Danessia said.
Mom and Dad have nicknamed Dreshon their “car baby.” They said it’s a story and a nickname that will stick with him.
Westside district schools will open up for all students in August with safety and social distancing measures in place.
The district sent a note to parents Monday detailing the plans. For most students in the district, school will begin Aug. 18. Eighth graders, and high school sophomores, juniors and seniors will begin school Aug. 19.
The current plan is to have all Westside Community Schools students attend school every day. The district has a backup plan that would divide the students into two groups and have them attend school on different days of the week.
Last week, Omaha Public Schools officials unveiled a fall reopening plan that would divide students into two groups who would each attend school in person part of the week. Half of OPS students would attend school Monday and Tuesday, the other half Thursday and Friday. They would rotate attending Wednesday.
In the note Westside sent Monday, Superintendent Mike Lucas noted that things could change in the coming weeks depending on the advice of health officials.
“There is always the possibility that we will have to close back down and again utilize ‘extended campus/at-home learning’ but we want to do everything in our power to avoid that if at all possible,” Lucas wrote.
District officials said they intend to publish decisions for four- to six-week periods at a time in what could be an ever-changing situation. The document sent out Monday is intended to be used for the first few weeks of the school year.
Families will be asked to screen their students for temperature and other symptoms such as sneezing, coughing and sore throat.
Students and staff will be asked to sanitize their hands when entering classrooms, hallways and common spaces.
Masks have been a divisive topic for Westside parents, with some saying they should be required and others saying they shouldn’t.
Current advice from health officials says masks should be worn when proper social distancing cannot be maintained or in a public setting indoors.
The bulk of the discussion on Monday night centered around the district's plan to return to school this fall. Nearly two dozen parents and teachers peppered OPS officials with questions.
Westside officials said that if school were in session today, masks would be required. They said they don’t see that changing by August.
The district said if, where and when masks are required, there would be hourly mask breaks in socially distant settings.
Students will be given three reusable masks but can use their own. Staff will be given two masks.
Other guidance in the district’s initial pandemic plan calls for frequently disinfecting commonly touched surfaces, keeping classroom desks spread apart, using tape and plastic barriers to ensure distance in applicable areas, limiting traffic in hallways, requiring masks on school buses and shutting off water fountains.
Nebraska Republican Party Chairman Dan Welch told a fellow Republican in June that the state party made a mistake by targeting a GOP legislative candidate in a campaign flyer, a transcript of his phone call shows.
The details of Welch’s private conversation were made public Monday by the campaign of Janet Palmtag of Syracuse, the target of the GOP flyer. The World-Herald independently confirmed the phone conversation.
Welch, in a statement, acknowledged talking to Nebraska Republicans about the southeast Nebraska race involving two Republicans. He said he hopes the Palmtag campaign will stick to “relevant issues” going forward.
The state’s Republican titans stand on opposite sides of the contest between Palmtag and Sen. Julie Slama of Peru.
Gov. Pete Ricketts and the state GOP back Slama, who was appointed by Ricketts. Former Gov. Dave Heineman and U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry support Palmtag, a longtime party activist.
The flyer, sent to District 1 voters before the May primary, criticized Palmtag for opposing Ricketts’ push to boost the pay of the director of Nebraska’s prison system. It said she stood with “radical” State Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha. The flyer also questioned Palmtag’s commitment to gun rights, based on her past statements.
State GOP spokesman Ryan Hamilton has previously defended the flyer as accurate. Welch said in his Monday statement that party leaders, including Ricketts, remain “totally committed” to making sure Slama stays in office. Voters agreed by a large margin, he noted.
Slama defeated Palmtag by more than 4,000 votes in this spring’s officially nonpartisan primary. A third candidate was eliminated in the primary, so the two will face off again this fall.
During the private call, Welch apologized for the attack on Palmtag, a real-estate agent. Welch said he had heard from others that she was “a good person, a good volunteer and a good Republican.”
Welch went on to say the mailer “was not in good taste” and “crossed the line.” He said the party has since beefed up its internal processes to make sure the state party doesn’t attack a good Republican again.
Welch on Monday said he disagreed with a concept that appeared on the mailer but would not specify.
On Tuesday afternoon, Welch defended the mailer against allegations of racism and said the part he objected to was its decision to lump Palmtag in with atheists. He said his understanding is that she is a Christian.
The Nebraska Republican Party is attacking Janet Palmtag for “going Lincoln” and siding with “radical” State Sen. Ernie Chambers. Palmtag said the ads aren't true. “People in our area know that I’ve been a very, very loyal Republican," she said.
The flyer drew criticism from Heineman and former Gov. Bob Kerrey, a Democrat, who wrote a joint letter calling the advertisement misleading and racist for its statements about Palmtag and Chambers, who is one of Nebraska’s two black state senators.
On the call, Welch also criticized Palmtag and Heineman for forcing the party to get involved in a race where the seat was ably filled by Slama, whom Ricketts and the GOP had already endorsed.
Welch said on the call that Ricketts “made the decision to go after Janet (Palmtag) hard to try and beat her in the primary so it would be over.” His aim, Welch said, was party unity.
Welch also said Ricketts’ legislative appointees have struggled in recent years to win when they stood for election. Welch wondered if some Republicans backed Palmtag to embarrass Ricketts.
Heineman has said he supports Palmtag because he knows her from working with her at the state GOP. Ricketts’ spokesman referred questions to the state GOP.
Palmtag said Nebraska “needs a leader who will take responsibility, not someone who runs and hides.” She called Welch “an honorable man and a strong leader.”
Slama, who declined to comment Monday, has referred ad-related questions to the GOP.
Jane Kleeb, chairwoman of the Nebraska Democratic Party, said her party prohibits spending state party money on Democrat vs. Democrat races. She offered to share a copy of the resolution with the GOP.
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Welch is the latest party insider caught in the crossfire of the GOP skirmish between Ricketts and Heineman over the legislative race and also how much influence Ricketts should have in the state GOP.
Traditionally, governors lead state parties. But Ricketts’ influence in the state GOP is larger than many of his predecessors. He has been the party’s principal private donor over the past six months, giving $190,000.
Heineman and former Omaha Mayor Hal Daub, also a Republican, have questioned whether one person should have so much influence.
Ricketts’ supporters have pointed to GOP election results in the state and the party’s advantage over Democrats in registered voters as evidence of the job he’s doing.
Welch, in his conversation, alluded to Ricketts’ influence: “He’s a big donor to the party. When he makes a decision that he wants something done, things will happen.”
World-Herald staff writer Paul Hammel contributed to this report.