Photo by Perry Riddle, Topeka Daily Capital, June 8, 1966
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20 years ago--
by Stannie Anderson
June 8, 1986
Almost until the last minute, there was nothing that appeared threatening about Topeka skies on June 8, 1966—at least to the average person. It had been a rainy, cool and humid day, with some fog and temperatures in the mid-60s. By 4:30 p.m. the sky was partly sunny. But forecasters at the National Weather Service office in Topeka weren’t reassured by the sunshine. Since early in the day they had been aware of a warm, moist front to the south—and the possible danger of a mix of this air with cool air in Topeka. By 11 a.m. they had issued a tornado watch.
Tornado watches are a common occurrence in Kansas this time of year, so most Topekans on that day took an occasional look at the sky, listened for further weather news and calmly continued with their mid-week activities. Watches usually stretch out for a few hours, then uneventfully are canceled.
Temperatures continued to climb during the afternoon up to 74 degrees. With the sun shining through the clouds, there seemed to be nothing alarming. Nor was there any indication that shortly before 7 p.m. the barometric pressure would drop and a black thunderstorm would barrel out of the southwest carrying a huge tornado aimed straight for Topeka.
Residents of Udall must have had much the same calmness on May 25, 1955, before a tornado leveled the south-central Kansas town at 10:30 p.m., killing 82 of its 600 population and injuring many.
“The little town of Udall died in its sleep last night,” a reported wrote in a now-famous account of the devastation.
But he was wrong when he said the town died. Udall’s citizens who were still alive when the twister moved on were survivors in the real sense of the word. They rebuilt their town, and along with it a modern warning system.
Udall left a legacy that undoubtedly saved many lives in Topeka 11 years later.
Because of Udall, Kansans began to take seriously the emergency weather plans and warnings. City and town officials began to see they must take responsibility for keeping their residents aware of how to protect themselves.
At Topeka’s National Weather Service office, Richard A. Garrett, chief meteorologist in charge, had spearheaded the Kansas education effort, preaching a perpetual sermon of readiness. But there was not much interest…until Udall.
At the time of the Udall disaster, Topeka had no tornado warning sirens. By June 8, 1966, there were 19 sirens in place. In the intervening years between the two tornadoes, many hundreds of people volunteered to learn the fine points of tornado spotting and had the courage to head to the critical spots to watch for tornadoes while other citizens headed for their basements.
Plans were set up in Topeka and across the state for disaster plans, with cooperation from law enforcement officials, Civil Defense works, ham radio operators and storm spotters.
Although there was no warning for people southwest of the city limits, spotter reports of the twister enabled the weather service to give the alert so that sirens were sounded in the city. The warning gave a lead time of 13 to 18 minutes for people to seek shelter as the tornado crunched its way diagonally through the heart of the city from southwest to northeast.
A report in “General Summary of Tornadoes 1966,” by L.W. Dye and E.K. Grabill, said the Topeka tornado was one of the most damaging and probably the most costly in terms of dollar damage inflicted by any single tornado on record at that time. Since then, more costly single tornadoes have been recorded elsewhere.
Such tremendous damage might be expected to be accompanied by a high loss of life. But little Udall had far more fatalities. The Topeka tornado caused 17.
Perhaps many lives were saved in Topeka because the tornado moved into the city at 7:15 p.m.—when many Topekans were home from work and eating their meals. Schools were not in session.
But it must also be said that Topeka’s tornado preparation and education had been thorough. Weather spotters were in place at strategic spots around the city. Topekans had been briefed on safety precautions so often that it was automatic for most of them to seek refuge of safety at the sound of the sirens. It was normal for them, too, to listen for weather updates from television and radio. When the crisis came, most were in their basements or had sought other protection.
Shortly before the Topeka tornado struck, the Kansas State University campus in Manhattan was hit by another tornado, but with much less damage.
The first sighting of the Topeka tornado was by a farmer, Eldon Thomas, who lived about 13 miles southwest of the city. Although the sun was shining, the sky was black and then came a tremendous roar. Thomas, his wife and seven children huddled on the floor of their mobile home as the twister roared by. Thomas ran to the door and saw it had touched down just across the road.
Five miles northeast of Thomas’ mobile home, Mrs. H.B. Nicely, her son, Glenn, daughter-in-law and young granddaughter sought shelter in their garage because the sky looked so strange. Both Mrs. Nicely and her son were injured when the twister hit, Mrs. Nicely by stones from a disintegrating fireplace and Glenn Nicely when burned on the face by a water tank that burst.
Their next-door-neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Calvin Wolfe, were the first fatalities of the storm. Their bodies were found later about 100 yards from their demolished home.
The tornado roared on. It ground its way through the pony farm southwest of Burnett’s Mound, where Clarence Irish, his wife and son dived into their basement after seeing the giant funnel. It destroyed their home, but they emerged uninjured. The tornado, still on the ground, roared on toward Topeka.
On Burnett’s Mound—which Indian legend said would protect Topeka from tornadoes as long as Potawatomi chief Abram Burnett’s burial place near the mound was undisturbed—rain began to fall.
Tornado sirens were sounded in the city at 7:02 p.m., and Topekans headed for their basements or other shelter.
The tornado came roaring over the mound, sucking people from under a nearby overpass where they had taken shelter, whirling them around and then dropping them as it continued on its macabre journey. At a home on Twilight Drive, the tornado critically injured a 5-year-old buy, the only child to die of storm injuries.
Houses in the tornado’s path literally exploded, as it swept debris away, leaving bare slab after slab. The intersection of Twilight Drive and W. 30th was an unbelievable mass of destruction, as people fought their way out of the debris in the wake of the twister.
Farther northeast, Washburn University was quiet on the sultry, rainy evening, where about 200 people were on campus. Several young girls had been attending a baton-twirling workshop. Some had gone home for the night, but others were staying at Benton Hall, the women’s dormitory.
At MacVicar Chapel, about 40 people had gathered for a piano recital. Elsewhere on campus there were a few faculty members who had returned to do some work after dinner.
The shock came swiftly. The tornado barreled across campus, leaving many buildings leveled in its wake, but no one was killed.
The storm moved on northeastward, destroying more property as it entered a residential area northeast of the campus. College Hill residential and commercial areas sustained severe damage. Central Park Elementary School looked as though it had been bombed. Late it was razed because it could not be salvaged.
Central Park, a measured-mile-around park that student runners enjoyed, was left almost a total loss. A previous city superintendent of parks had planted unusual trees from all over the world in that park, turning it into a labeled botanical marvel. As the storm passed through, it took the trees with it or left them splintered and broken.
Roaring, grinding, the twister moved inexorably toward the downtown area. David Laird of the Topeka Police Department stood outside and watched what he said to be a double garage hit the dome of the Statehouse, tearing off a section of copper. Nor did the twister spare the giant cottonwood that had grown near the Statehouse since the early days of its construction. More than a third of its limbs were wrested off and a large chunk was torn from its trunk.
Topeka businesses in the path were mostly flattened. Near 10th Street, customers and others at the Pla-Land Bowl Bowling Alley, 1024 Kansas Ave., took refuge under a pool table. When the twister moved on, Lisle Grauer, owner, was found dead under one crushed end of the table. Only two of Topeka’s fleet of 50 buses were salvageable.
The old National Reserve Life Insurance Building at 10th and Kansas Avenue remained standing as the tornado passed, although badly damaged. Topekans were to note ironically in the days that followed the painted words on the building: “A refuge in time of storm.” They also worried within the next few days whether the building would topple. It didn’t.
The water tower at 11th and Quincy resisted the might of the storm. Weather officials later were to say that the fact that it was filled with water probably prevented its being exploded by the storm.
The tornado, up to this point, had miraculously taken a path that had avoided major damage to Topeka hospitals, including the VA facility, Kansas Neurological Institute, Stormont-Vail and St. Francis. As it went over the I-70 overpass downtown, undeflected from its northeastward direction, the twister broke windows at Memorial Hospital and The Capital-Journal building and knocked out power. Santa Fe shops near the Branner Street bridge had major damage.
Destruction in Oakland was massive.
Philip Billard Municipal Airport was the twister’s next prey, with tumbled airplanes and hangars. National Weather Bureau workers in their office there dived under heavy tables at the last minute. Wind-measuring equipment was damaged at the moment it was measuring 72 miles per hour, so it will never be known just how much wind was involved in the storm as it moved on outside the city limits to its dissipation back up into the clouds.
The tornado had been on the ground for 22 miles, about 12 of those miles though the heart of the city. It moved at an average of 30 miles per hour.
The twister had no more than moved out of the city than the first of the injured were being carried or were walking into hospital emergency rooms.
Topekans coming out of their basements were unbelieving as they saw the brilliant sunshine and bright blue skies, with blackness fading into the distance towards the northeast.
Since the first damage reports came from the southwest, this is where the ambulances and law enforcement officers headed. Later criticism was to come from East Topeka citizens who charged they were being neglected while help was sent to west-side people.
Many of the injured were transported by private cars, vans or trucks. Mortuaries drove their hearses to the scene of injuries and helped transport victims to the hospitals.
Topeka Boulevard, reduced by debris to half its width in places, was the scene of some frantic driving by motorists who leaned on their horns and headed toward the hospitals with the injured. When there were no stretchers, rescue workers picked up doors and loaded the badly wounded on them.
At Stormont-Vail, St. Francis, Memorial and Topeka VA, medical personnel and doctors either were at the hospitals or arrived soon afterward at their assigned posts, according to the disaster plan that had been set up. A triage area was set up near the emergency room doors, with a doctor assessing the injuries and assigning patients to the proper level of care. The dead were taken on stretchers to a temporary hospital “morgue.”
Darkness brought its special problems for the rescue workers. The massiveness and extent of the destruction did not become really apparent until daylight the next day.
All over the city, professional and volunteer workers labored during the night. The Air Force at Forbes Air Force Base donated equipment and manpower. Police, firefighters and civil defense workers manned the rescue effort. National Guardsmen were quickly on the scene to provide security and help clear debris.
The number one priority was to aid the injured. But streets had to be cleared for the emergency vehicles. Portable outdoor lighting had to be supplied. And there were those myriad, frustrating emergencies requiring the services of gas and electric workers. And wherever emergency vehicles went, there were the thousands and thousands of nails and glass littering the streets. Vehicles were having one flat tire after another. At least one ambulance made an emergency run with four flat tires.
The next day, sightseers began to stream to the top of Burnett’s Mound, where the damage path was clear and awesome.
And Topekans determinedly began to dig out. There was a quick decision on the part of most homeowners and businesses to rebuild. More than 4,000 volunteers helped with the cleanup, including 300 Mennonites from Western Kansas who showed up with chain saws and went to work.
Twenty years later, the view atop the mound no longer shows the path. The buildings have been replaced. The jagged trees were removed and new trees planted. City development increased by such leaps that Topeka Mayor Doug Wright said that in the late ‘60s and the ‘70s it was almost impossible to see the Topeka skyline when it didn’t have a crane in it.
“I think every city has within it the ability to come back from something devastating like that,” Wright said. “But in Topeka, we’ve done it.”
“Without a doubt, the tornado brought us closer together, tied everybody together,” the mayor said. “We had all suffered this tragic event. I was impressed at the time and was awed by the people who showed up and pitched in to help. It was very inspiring.
“If it were to happen again, we’re in good shape. We learned a number of things from the disaster that have remained in practice and are more effective. We’re also more aware of what might happen—and I think we all have a great regard now for the power of nature.”