1975 Blizzard

Holly Rothschild and Lisa Stastney, both 12, tunnel through the snow after the January 1975 blizzard. The girls lived near 116th Street and West Dodge Road. More photos.

Editor's note: This story originally was published in January 2015.

“It came snarling out of the Southwest Jan. 10, a killer on the prowl, spewing destruction on icy, snow-coated breath.” — Omaha World-Herald, January 1975

* * *

On Jan. 10, 1975, Omaha was crippled by a blizzard, part of a larger storm that suffocated the Midwest in wind and snow and that hurled tornadoes across the southeast.

Seventy people are known to have died, 58 because of the blizzard and 12 from the tornadoes. In Iowa, 17 died; in Nebraska, 14; and in the Dakotas, Minnesota and Wisconsin, 27.

How bad was the blizzard? It was similar in Omaha to the city’s 2009 Christmas blizzard in terms of peak winds, snow totals and temperature, according to National Weather Service records. But the 1975 storm devastated the city because of its timing and the more primitive forecasting and communications technology of the day.

THE FORECAST

Meteorologist Benny Gullach didn’t like what he saw as he pored over the weather maps, radar and data in the pre-dawn hours on this date at the National Weather Service office north of Omaha.

A multi-state winter storm watch was in effect, but where would the storm hit?

Shortly after 6 a.m., as the storm got nearer, Gullach would get his answer. A routine weather report out of Pratt, Kansas, noted heavy snow.

Pratt is 350 miles from Omaha, but this was the clue that Gullach needed to chart the storm’s path. Within minutes, Gullach issued a warning: heavy snow and blizzardlike conditions for Omaha.

“I worried then about the public ...” Gullach told The World-Herald afterward. “It was 37 degrees and there was light snow. Anyone looking outside and hearing about near-blizzard conditions would think: ‘That guy must be crazier than heck.’ ”

THE HOAX THAT WASN’T

Around 7 a.m., those monitoring radio or TV likely heard of Gullach’s warning.

By now, the roads were starting to get slushy, but the city didn’t slow down.

In a bit of irony, a prankster posing as a school official called KFAB and announced that school had been called off.

By 8:30, not even two hours after the prank call, school was canceled.

THE FIGHT

“It was the fastest-moving blizzard I have ever seen,” Gullach said.

Around 10 a.m., the city asked businesses to send workers home on a staggered schedule, and chaos ensued.

Those who ventured home encountered frightening conditions. Many weren’t dressed for the weather.

Winds gusted to 40-plus miles per hour, and wind chills dropped to 10 to 20 degrees below zero.

By evening rush hour, 10 inches of snow had fallen.

The conditions were brutal. Cars got stuck, and motorists stumbled through whiteout conditions in search of shelter.

Thousands of people were stranded.

Westroads Shopping Center sheltered 700 people, Boys Town at least 100. Hotels overflowed.

THE CLEANUP

An estimated 10,000 cars had been abandoned along metro area roadways. Late Sunday morning — Jan. 12 — abandoned vehicles still blocked parts of Interstate 80 west of Omaha. On Monday, cars still blocked city roads.

Fred Kudym was in his 20s, earning a living towing trucks that year.

Now 65, he described the aftermath as brutal, staggering.

“Cars were buried up to their hoods, you could practically walk on top of them because the snow was so packed in by the winds,” he said. “We worked about 50 hours straight, we were really worked to the limit.

“It was the worst weather possible and the worst setup possible for a disaster,” he said. “Everyone went to school and work and everyone tried to get home.”

World-Herald researchers Jeanne Hauser and Jolene McHugh contributed to this report.

Contact the writer: 402-444-11102, nancy.gaarder@owh.com

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