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The Blizzard of 1949 in Nebraska: Oh the stories I was told!

Many of the old timers are gone but this story remains clear in my mind: How the Generation of the Great Depression, WW2 and specifically the NE folk who continued to survive through one of the harshest Winters in NE history...

Operation Haylift USA / Lippert Pictures / 1950 / black / 73 minutes c82packet.com

Scenes from the blizzard that hit Spencer in 1949.

The Ten Worst Snowstorms In World History. This photo was taken after the Great Blizzard of 1888. The Armistice Day Blizzard of 1949 which impacted Minnesota made the cut, as did the "Storm of the Century" in 1993 which blasted the east coast with 1-3 feet of snow, leaving behind some 10 foot drifts. Via: www.startribune.c...

The Book: Blizzard 1949 - Alleman, Roy V.

Regarding the two pictures taken at Lee Bird Field, they were taken within a day or two of the worst blizzard to hit that area in quite awhile. The timeframe of this blizzard would have been November or early December 1949. My father (Frank T. Henley) is on the left and the gentleman on the right is Wendell Hammond who also was a weather bureau employee. My father moved the operation from 214 West 5th to the airport in Oct/Nov., 1949.

In the other photo, the vehicle shown belonged to the Nebraska National Guard and was assigned to taking my father and Mr. Hammond to the weather station because the depth of snow and accompanying snow drifts prevented driving U.S. Highway 30 (Lincoln Highway) east 3 miles to the airport. The track vehicle was called a "weasel".

  • Lynette Larson Campbell

    My father came to North Platte as chief meteorologist of the weather bureau station which was located at 214 West 5th St. This house also served as the living quarters for the chief meteorologist. The front door on the right took you into the weather station and the front door on the left was the front entrance to the private living quarters. The left half of the first floor and the entire second floor was private living space. A single car garage as well as rain, temperature and barometric pressure gauges were located in the backyard. The house has a full attic to include an access hatch to the roof where the wind instrumentation was located. The house was sold by the government to my mother in 1950. A stately old home, it still stands today but without the front porch and lawn. Once a residential neighborhood it is now incorporated within the city business district. Henry J. Henley

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Blizzard of 1949 Investigation

  • Lynette Larson Campbell

    Spring Flooding: The Last Punch In case you are wondering why an article about a great blizzard is included on a flood mitigation page, it is this: what falls as snow eventually turns into water. With the incredible depths witnessed from the winter of 1948/49, it should come as no surprise that the spring of 1949 was one of widespread flooding

  • Lynette Larson Campbell

    Here are the gage records: White River at Oglala, SD - 20.60' on March 4, 1949 (6th highest crest of record) Niobrara River at Sparks - 6.73' on March 5 (4th highest crest of record) Elkhorn River at Neligh - 10.98' on April 7 (6th highest crest of record) Elkhorn River at Columbus - 15.63' on March 11 (highest crest of record) Missouri River at Decatur - 41.20' on April 9 (4th highest crest of record) Missouri River at Omaha - 30.00' on April 13 (7th highest crest of record) Shell Creek north of Columbus - 21.20' on June 2 (8th highest crest of record) Big Blue River at Crete - 27.00' on March 8 (10th highest crest of record) Big Nemaha River at Falls City - 28.80' on June 2 (4th highest crest of record)

  • Lynette Larson Campbell

    Keep in mind that many of the existing stream gages were put into service after 1949 and that there is a very sparse coverage of stream gages in the less-populated areas of central and western Nebraska, so the gages listed above only provide a hint of the true extent of flooding. If another winter of immense snowfall were to occur now, farmers and ranchers have more resources and communications at their disposal to better weather the storm and to protect their livestock. However, transportation could be similarly impacted, and spring flooding would be practically unavoidable. As the major snowmelt flooding showed this year in Fargo and along the Red River in 2001, flooding does not only occur as a result of intense warm season rains. The Blizzard of 1949 and the deep snow depths from that winter galvanized the High Plains states and the nation's military like no domestic event that has occurred since.

  • Lynette Larson Campbell

    Other interesting facts At the time of Operation Haylift, the Air Force was less than two years old, but rapidly assuming a more and more prominent social role as a first responder for humanitarian issues and the use of wartime science used for peaceful applications. Blizzard relief work was the final big moment for the Kearney Air Force Base, which was soon to close. A Hollywood docudrama entitled "Operation Haylift" was released in 1950 that recounted the Air Force's role in the humanitarian mission. The movie featured a fleet of the Air Force's C-119s (also known as "flying boxcars") as well as actual pilots who participated in the humanitarian mission. The movie starred Bill Williams, Ann Rutherford, Tom Brown and Jane Nigh.

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American Red Cross, Army Corps of Engineers, National Guard, and the Civil Air Patrol were mustered. Operation Haylift (US Air Force) and Operation Snowbound (US Army) were formed by late January to address the immense need.

  • Lynette Larson Campbell

    Operation Snowbound In Lincoln, Governor Val Peterson learned that counties lacked the money and equipment to open roads. Deep snow and drifts kept cattle from getting to feed and, in some cases, long isolated rural people were exhausting food and fuel supplies. He declared a state of emergency for 22 counties and parts of seven additional counties in northern Nebraska. Under the direction the Nebraska Adjutant General, a command post for "Operation Snowbound" was set up in the basement of the Capitol. Estimates were that in the 29 counties wholly or partly in the storm emergency area, there were more than 1.5 million cattle worth more than $250 million (nearly $2.5 billion in 2008 dollars).

  • Lynette Larson Campbell

    Holt County, because of its large size and the severe impact of the winter, was a center of blizzard relief activity. At O'Neill, 60 inches of snow had fallen since the November storm. Since November, pilots in O'Neill and other Holt County towns had provided some links to the outside and had been transporting necessities, but increasing livestock losses were a growing worry. On January 23rd, Kearney Air Force Base snowplows arrived to clear the airport road and the runway so a C-47 cargo plane could land. Blizzard relief organizations created in Garfield and Blaine counties arranged for airlifts of hay to ranches in neighboring Loup County from Burwell.

  • Lynette Larson Campbell

    In early February, 250 Nebraska guardsmen formed eight-man "mercy teams" in several snowbound areas to be able to respond to specific problem areas more quickly. Operation Snowbound continued well into April, after the last of the big storms hit south central and eastern Nebraska. During this period, US Airmen joined with their peers from the other services to respond to train derailments brought about by another snowstorm in late March and flooding along the ice-packed Big and Little Nemaha rivers The Army used tracked vehicles called "Weasels" to bring supplies and assistance to stranded people. During its 23 days of operation, the Army opened 87,073 miles of road, liberated 152,196 persons from snowbound homes, and took 35 sick persons to receive medical care. The rapid mobilization was impressive - during the height of operation during World War II, the Army had 394 bulldozers in operation. During the peak of Snowbound, there were 1654 major pieces of equipment being operated by

  • Lynette Larson Campbell

    the Army, with 1320 of these being bulldozers.

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The Winter of 1948/49: A Very Harsh Winter The storm referred to as "The Blizzard of 1949" started on January 1, but to truly frame the context of the storm, it is necessary to get a grasp of the weather activity of the previous few months. Farmers enjoyed a warm September and October and brought in an outstanding harvest of corn, wheat, and soybeans. But on November 18, 1948, that all changed when the first severe winter storm swept in with heavy snow, sleet, and winds of 50-70 mph.

Roads were blocked, schools were closed, snow drifted over rooftops, and cattle were stranded. Trains were forced to stop, and stranded travelers forced any available hotels into overflowing. The Weather Bureau (the precursor to the National Weather Service) called the storm, "One of the most severe blizzards of record over much of the central and northeastern parts of the state." Northeastern Nebraska received the worst of this first round of weather

  • Lynette Larson Campbell

    Roads were blocked, schools were closed, snow drifted over rooftops, and cattle were stranded. Trains were forced to stop, and stranded travelers forced any available hotels into overflowing. The Weather Bureau (the precursor to the National Weather Service) called the storm, "One of the most severe blizzards of record over much of the central and northeastern parts of the state." Northeastern Nebraska received the worst of this first round of weather as Bloomfield and Hartington registered 24 inches of snow, and Wausa received 30 inches. As a result of this storm, the phone company reported more than 500 wire breaks and more than 1700 telephone poles were downed.

  • Lynette Larson Campbell

    Another smaller snow storm on December 29th gave way to a brief warming period before the New Year. Depending on which accounts you read, the Blizzard of 1949 started on January 1 or 2, but there is no debating that this winter storm was the worst seen since 1888. It began as everyone likes to see in winter. "Cattle and sheep were grazing winter range and growing fat." The announcer, this time from radio station KOA, Denver, predicted another nice day with a possibility of snow flurries.

  • Lynette Larson Campbell

    This was a powerful station that could be heard for hundreds of miles around. Rain began to fall on the first day of the storm, then the temperature and barometer dropped and the rain turned over to snow. In the evening, snow began to fall heavily, and soon there was twelve inches on the ground. Snow drifts were already piling up on the highway where bushes or bands stopped the wind. The storm raged for three full days across western, central, and northern Nebraska. Winds of 50 to 60 mph drove heavy snow on top of what had already fallen since November. Many accounts across the State say that the heavy snowfall did not let up for three full days. On January 5, the Omaha World Herald quoted, "Snowplows were in action over Nebraska early Wednesday and the wheels of transportation were beginning to turn in some areas as the blizzard let up."

  • Lynette Larson Campbell

    But the severe winter weather did not end in early January. The last two weeks of January were very cold with eight to eleven days with lows of zero degrees or below. The cold and snowy weather continued into March, when another major snowfall dropped 20 inches of snow around North Platte. The Big and Little Nemaha Rivers were flooding because of ice jams. On April 14th, the last of the big storms hit south central and eastern Nebraska, dropping 12 inches of snow. During the winter of 1948-1949, parts of the State had received more than 100 inches of snow. The Wausa/Bloomfield area received a total of 90 inches. One area in Antelope County had drifts that reached over 35 feet and didn't melt until June. The Blizzard of 1949 impacted an area larger than 193,000 square miles over four states. It left nearly a quarter of a million people trapped and millions of heads of livestock without access to food and water. Through the newly-formed Military Air Transport Service, the Fifth Army,

  • Lynette Larson Campbell

    American Red Cross, Army Corps of Engineers, National Guard, and the Civil Air Patrol were mustered. Operation Haylift (US Air Force) and Operation Snowbound (US Army) were formed by late January to address the immense need.

Blizzard of '49

  • Lynette Larson Campbell

    Two pieces of equipment basically made the rescue effort possible: the Weasel, with its unparalleled cross-country mobility that was unhindered by any amount of snow, and the use of light, ski-equipped aircraft, which were able to operate even in fairly marginal conditions. Today’s Army has no analogues to those pieces of equipment. None.

  • Lynette Larson Campbell

    I suspect that modern advances in communications would mean that rescue efforts, if they happened, would be better-directed and more efficient than they were in ‘49. Still, it happened once, and there’s no real reason it couldn’t happen again, if only on a smaller scale. Are we better prepared? Honestly, I’d guess that most people in the affected area - hell, most people anywhere in the country - are less-prepared for such a disaster than their predecessors of sixty years ago. The military, likewise, seems equally unprepared to respond to such a disaster - even supposing any were available stateside, I don’t think a fifteen-ton MRAP vehicle - which is basically the military transport vehicle of the immediate future - is going to do at all well in snow.

  • Lynette Larson Campbell

    (Has anyone ever even considered putting a plow blade on an MRAP? I kind of doubt it. They make one for the HMMWV, but it wouldn’t be of much use in a January 1949-style storm. For that matter, given our present, desert-centric approach to warfare, do MRAPs even have heaters? Did anyone think that far ahead?)

  • Lynette Larson Campbell

    Operation Snowbound has mostly been forgotten in the intervening decades; Google nets less than two-hundred relevant hits at the moment, and the only military notice of the event comes courtesy of Bolling AFB. The sixtieth anniversary of the operation makes a fitting time to remember the bravery and heroism of those men and women who helped save an entire region of the country from disaster; it might also - I suspect - be a good opportunity to remember some of the lessons learned in the operation… particularly those which seem to have been forgotten in the intervening years.

  • Lynette Larson Campbell

    Published in: General, History, Security | on January 28th, 2009|

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