Blizzard shuts down interstates in western Nebraska; hail, strong winds in southeast

Blizzard shuts down interstates in western Nebraska; hail, strong winds in southeast
Blowing snow starts to drift as a blizzard hits Valentine, Nebraska, on Thursday. CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD

Interstates closed down, the military flew some of its jets out of Offutt Air Force Base, and the Nebraska State Patrol repositioned troopers and readied four-wheel drive crews.

No chances were taken Wednesday as a second massive storm in as many months slammed into Nebraska and nearby states.

The western two-thirds of the state was expected to grapple with blizzard conditions Wednesday evening into Thursday evening, while southeastern Nebraska found itself under the gun for severe weather Wednesday evening. Hail was expected to be the biggest problem Wednesday. Generally, pea-sized hail was reported, although there were some reports of hail stones as large as golf balls in Gage County.

Because of the potential for strong winds and hail, the 55th Wing flew some aircraft away from Offutt Air Force Base. Col. Michael Manion, the Wing’s commander, said in a social media post that the move was being taken “out of an abundance of caution.” Gov. Pete Ricketts gathered some of the state’s top safety officials for a press conference Wednesday to talk about preparations. He said it was too soon to know whether and where the snow and rain might cause additional flooding.

Maj. Russ Stanczyk of the Nebraska State Patrol reiterated earlier warnings about travel.

“If you don’t need to travel, please don’t,” Stanczyk said of the blizzard. The State Patrol shifted staff to the Nebraska Panhandle, where troopers are likely to be needed most, he said. Additionally, they readied their four-wheel drive crews in central Nebraska.

Travelers heading west across Nebraska were being warned to pull off I-80. Westbound I-80 was closed at North Platte, and the Interstate was closed in both directions west of Big Springs. Other Interstate closings in the path of the blizzard included portions of I-29, I-70 and I-90.

“When these storms come along, we run out of places to park vehicles,” the Nebraska State Patrol tweeted of its need to extend road closures. “To help us help you — stay put, bed down, get a room.”

The power of the storm could be seen in many ways, including the temperature contrast as conflicting air masses collided. There was a 40-degree difference over the 200 miles between Grand Island, Nebraska, and Salina, Kansas, the National Weather Service in Hastings tweeted.

The severe weather threat in southeastern Nebraska is expected to subside by Thursday morning, though strong winds will continue to gust through Friday.

World-Herald staff writers Aaron Hegarty and Steve Liewer contributed to this report.

Storm rages in western Nebraska

A storm blasting out of Colorado brought blizzard conditions to western Nebraska early Thursday as southerly winds protected the eastern part of the state.

The heaviest amount of snow reported was 10 inches about 15 miles southwest of Mullen, said Kenny Roberg, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in North Platte. Mullen is about 70 miles north of North Platte.

About a mile northwest of Mullen, an observer recorded 8 inches of snow. Valentine reported 7 inches of snow.

In North Platte, about 4 inches of snow had fallen by 10:30 a.m. CDT with more expected, Roberg said.

“We don’t expect the storm to push off north until late this afternoon,” Roberg said.

Earlier Thursday, winds were gusting up to 62 mph in Broken Bow, 55 in Valentine and 51 in North Platte, according to Ed Townsend, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in North Platte.

At midmorning Thursday, westbound Interstate 80 was closed at Kearney, while eastbound I-80 was closed from the Wyoming line to Lexington.

The storm spread into north-central Nebraska overnight.

“North-central Nebraska could still see 6 to 9 inches of snow,” Townsend said Thursday morning. “We’re going to continue to see gusts of 40 to 50 mph before they start lessening in the late afternoon.”

Heavy snow and strong winds were expected in northeast Nebraska today, generally west of a line from Hartington to Albion, the weather service said. Snow accumulations of more than 8 inches are possible in northeast Nebraska near the South Dakota border, with a sharp decrease in snow amounts south toward Norfolk.

Satellite and surface observations indicated a broad swath of snow arching from the High Plains of Colorado through the Dakotas and into southern Minnesota, said Tyler Roys, a meteorologist with AccuWeather.

“Eastern Nebraska, including Lincoln and Omaha, will essentially stay dry today, although up to an inch of snow could fall overnight Thursday,” Roys said. “There is a component of warm weather brought up from the Mississippi Valley spinning counterclockwise that is keeping eastern Nebraska dry for the most part, although we expect some light rain off and on throughout the day.”

The thunderstorm that hit the Omaha area Wednesday night brought with it some small hail. A resident of the Florence area of north Omaha recorded .33 of an inch of rain as of 7 a.m. Thursday. Omaha’s Eppley Airfield recorded .22 of an inch of rain overnight, while Valley recorded .17.

Snow is expected to taper off Thursday night into Friday morning as the storm system continues to lift to the northeast. A low in the low 30s is expected in Omaha. The weather service is calling for temperatures to rebound into the low 40s in eastern Nebraska on Friday, and then a high in the low 50s Saturday and around 60 on Sunday.

Lightning strikes tear up chunks of Offutt runway

Powerful lightning bolts danced up and down Offutt Air Force Base’s 2-mile-long runway during Wednesday night’s thunderstorms, adding to the woes recently inflicted upon the weather-related installation.

Lightning struck the runway in at least 10 places, according to a Facebook post by 55th Wing Commander Col. Michael Manion. The strikes prompted emergency repairs by the Wing’s civil engineering squadron. A spokesman said the repairs were completed by noon, and the airfield was reopened.

Manion’s Facebook post said the lightning tore holes 3 to 5 inches deep in the concrete surface. One photo showed a broken chunk that appeared to be at least 2 feet long and 8 inches wide. It dwarfed a hand-held radio that had been placed next to it for the photo.

The airfield wasn’t operating at the time. Some of the 55th Wing’s reconnaissance aircraft had been flown to other bases ahead of the storm, and others had been pulled into hangars.

“Big storm last night brought big lightning,” Manion said in the post. “We will put it back together and you will see/hear airpower again later today.”

55th Wing officials couldn’t confirm exactly when the lightning hit. But Katie Gross, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Valley, said the peak of the storm passed over Offutt shortly before 11 p.m.

These are the first severe thunderstorms to hit the area this spring, part of a strong low pressure system that caused blizzard conditions Wednesday and Thursday in western and central Nebraska.

Gross said lightning seeks the shortest path to the ground, which often is through trees or structures. But in an open space like an airfield, bolts may hit the ground.

“Obviously, it was a powerful strike,” Gross said. “It’s going to leave a mark.”

Offutt is still recovering from last month’s flood, which submerged about one-third of the base under waters from the nearby Missouri and Platte Rivers. Forty-four buildings suffered damage, and about a quarter of the runway was under water.

In 2017, an EF-1 tornado struck Offutt’s flightline, causing about $20 million worth of damage to buildings and aircraft.

The 55th Wing also is planning to rebuild the runway beginning in December, at a cost of $130 million. It is the most extensive reconstruction since the runway was built in 1941, and extended to its current length in the mid-1950s.