June 27, 2008 Straight-line Winds Rip Omaha Artists

For the past decade I have traveled extensively across America, selling my photography at art shows and photographing details of the landscape between shows.  During this time it has been the Great Plains that have made me the most nervous because the weather can be so intense.  During one show in Fort Worth, Texas, I remember seeing a skyscraper that had all of its windows blown out by a tornado, leaving small shards of glass in every garden downtown.  That storm didn’t occur on an art show weekend, but the cars around Texas deeply dented by grapefruit-sized hail were a reminder of what could happen.  So it was with some trepidation that I came to Omaha for the Omaha Summer Arts Festival in the stormy early summer of 2008, and set up my booth with about 130 other artists.

The first day of the show started nicely, with warm temperatures and mild gusts, but there were just a few clouds in the sky.  Then, in late afternoon when the weather was still pleasant, a tornado siren started blaring continuously nearby.  Soon a staff member came to each booth and said that 70 mph winds were about 25 miles out and were headed our way–and to get ready for the storm.  I didn’t hesitate; I hauled all my boxes and other gear inside the tent and “battened down the hatches” (I had been hit by straight line winds in Omaha several years ago, and knew what they could do).  Then the staff person said to take refuge in the Landmark Building immediately, so I headed that way, snapping a few cell phone pictures of the oncoming storm.  The dark clouds were ominous.

Inside, we were herded (or as much as artists can be herded!) down into the basement of the building, where we waited, and waited, for the storm to pass overhead.  We heard reports of 90 mph winds and golf ball-sized hail nearby, then someone said the huge beer tent outside had toppled.  One artist said he had gone up and looked out and his booth had been destroyed.  I called my wife on my iPhone and told her the situation, and virtually everyone else was chatting with family and friends on their cell phones.  

Finally, after about an hour, and rumors of another storm approaching, we trooped outside to assess the damage.  It was extensive in some areas of the show, with a great many artists losing weeks or months of work.  Tent poles were twisted and display panels collapsed and tents torn up and artwork soggy and broken.  It was so sad.  Most of the artists have insurance that will cover the broken display structures, but generally it only covers the cost of art materials rather than the retail price of the works of art, so the cost of labor is not compensated.  For those artists who lost nearly everything at the show, it means a major loss of income.  Those of us in this profession live on the edge, often unable to afford some of the benefits that most workers are accustomed to, so a storm like this can be devastating.

By the way, I was lucky; my booth survived, mostly because the location was perhaps a bit less windy.  The straight-line winds from the thunderstorm were clocked at 80 mph.

The staff and administration and volunteers at this art show did an excellent job of warning people of the incoming storm.  They had plans in place for bad weather and executed those plans well.  After the storm they had a meeting with the artists and laid out the plan for the night and the next day.  They handled it well, and I thank them.  Nobody at the show was hurt, thank God.

This is part of a weblog documenting my travels and photography. I am primarily a nature photographer and you can see more of my work at http://www.leerentz.com

Click on the photographs below to see a larger version with captions.

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3 Comments on “June 27, 2008 Straight-line Winds Rip Omaha Artists”

  1. barkybree Says:

    Wow, what a great recount.

    In 1999, I flew in to Oklahoma City to assess the damage to one of our offices after an F5 tornado ran through the area. On approach to the airport, you could clearly see the thin brown line snaking through the landscape. It was the path of the tornado: even the grass was ripped up, nothing but dirt was left.

    I’ve always been fascinated by the Great Plains, both for the serene beauty of a landscape that stretches to the horizon, and for the sheer power of nature that landscape enables.

  2. Bonnie Blandford Says:

    Thanks for both the report and the pictures on what happened. Thanks for posting your link on the NAIA forum. This is a tough way to make a living!

    Bonnie

  3. Joe Ely Says:

    Wow, Lee, you really did see it.

    I actually flew into Omaha on Saturday morning and heard of the Friday night storm. It was terrible.

    Glad you were safe, but my heart goes out to your colleagues who had major loss.

    Yes, Nebraska, and all the Great Plains, has very severe weather. A lot.


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