THE 1966 TOPEKA TORNADO

37th Anniversary

Photograph of the 1966 Topeka tornado
June 8th, 2003 will mark the 37th anniversary of one of the most destructive and deadly tornadoes in Kansas history. The massive 1966 Topeka tornado killed 16 people, injured over 400 and caused $100 million damage; at the time, the highest in America history. With modern day inflation factored in, the tornado still ranks as one of the costliest on record.

The tornado formed about 7pm west of Auburn in southwest Shawnee county, and cut a 22 mile long path, at times a half a mile wide, across the heart of the city. Total devastation occurred along an 8 block section in the center of Topeka. Every building on the Washburn University campus was either destroyed or heavily damaged producing $10 million damage, alone.

Citywide about 800 homes were completely destroyed with nearly 3000 damaged. Even the state Capitol dome sustained damage from the flying debris, as did many downtown buildings. The intense destruction classified the tornado as an F5, the top of the Fujita Intensity Scale, with winds estimated at over 250 mph.

Map of the tornado track Picture of storm damage
The tornado held a northeast pace at about 35 mph, but weakened after leaving the downtown area, finally dissipating just east Billard Airport on the cityís northeast side after being on the ground for about a half an hour. Power and utilities in many parts of the city were out for weeks, and hundreds were left homeless.

Entering the southwest part of Topeka, the tornado roared across Burnetts Mound, ending a longstanding Indian legend that the Mound would deflect any tornadoes and spare the city. Although 42 tornadoes have struck Shawnee county since 1950, the infamous June 8th, 1966, is, by far, the worst.

Photograph of 1966 Topeka tornado
Excellent watch, warning and storm spotter activation prior to the storms development helped keep the death and injury toll relatively low, especially when compared to the amount of destruction and the storms path. In addition, the existence of an active and longstanding community preparedness plan was also instrumental in reducing potential casualties and injuries. Outstanding education, cooperation and understanding between Topeka governmental agencies, the media and public became a model for other cities to follow in the future. Statistics from 1966 Topeka tornado
 

Research and examination of the destruction and debris provided insights into tornado understanding, and improved safety rules and information. For example, the longstanding advice about going to the southwest corner of the basement and opening windows, was shown to be incorrect from damage surveys in Topeka. We now know that you should forget the windows, and head for the middle of the basement and get under a table, stairway or something sturdy.

Often overshadowed by the Topeka destruction, a large tornado also hit the city of Manhattan on June 8th causing 65 injuries and about $2 million damage. The Manhattan tornado hit shortly before 6pm on the cityís northwest edge, destroying 11 homes and damaging over 300 more. Public awareness of the Manhattan tornado, likely alerted Topeka residents to volatile atmospheric conditions and high potential for another tornado. In addition, shortly after the Topeka tornado, and likely from the same thunderstorm, two other tornadoes occurred in Leavenworth county, producing one fatality near Jarbalo.

A lot has changed since 1966, including weather technology that lets us better understand, forecast and warn for deadly tornadoes, like the one that devastated Topeka. Powerful computers, both table-top PC models and large mainframe systems, have allowed quick and thoroughly analysis and prediction of weather data. Small scale weather features unknown in 1966, are now scrutinized routinely for atmospheric evidence and clues.

Computers have also been coupled to more powerful and sophisticated Doppler weather radars, to look inside thunderstorms for areas of rotation, which are sometimes a precursor to the tornado.

Weather radars used in 1966 were WWII surplus with small fuzzy black and white images. Todayís National Weather Service Doppler radar present state-of-the-art high detail color images of both reflectivity and velocity zoomed to city and county level. Additional 3D interrogation of storms can pinpoint critical areas for storm spotters to observe before tornado development.

Much smaller warning areas are now selected on the radar screen using a cursor and movement vectors. With another click of the mouse the complete warning text is generated in seconds, and disseminated immediately, a fraction of the time it took to hand type a warning in 1966.

Surface map at 6am June 8, 1966
6 AM Surface Map

Surface map at noon from June 8, 1966
Surface Map at Noon shows the warm front had moved north of Topeka, with a cold front and dry line moving in from the West.

 

Slow speed manual teletypes and paper facsimile charts have been replaced by ultra high speed satellite computer driven communication circuits. These modern tools can bring weather information and send warnings out to the media and public in a fraction of a second. Direct broadcasts to the public by the NOAA Weather Radio network allow the average citizen to receive warning information anytime day or night, and at the same time as media outlets. Internet popularity and connections have allowed a multitude of weather data to be available to nearly everyone.

Can the devastation of June 8, 1966, happen again?   Yes, and at anytime!  We canít stop storms from forming. But through improved atmospheric understanding, modern technology and high speed communications, the death and injury toll, if any, will hopefully remain small compared to the destruction caused.

All Photographs Appear Courtesy of the Topeka Capitol Journal


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