1966-06-08 Topeka KS Tornado

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Bryce Kintigh

Enthusiast
Nov 1, 2007
5
0
0
34
Wichita, KS
For being an F5 and hitting a capital city, this tornado seems to be under loved. I did a good amount of research on this day back in college, but mainly on a secondary tornado that hit Manhattan, KS the same day.

The one thing I specifically remember is the old tall indian tale saying that because of Burnett's Mound, Topeka would be shielded from tornadoes from the southwest. Not the case, as the tornado actually hit Burnett's Mound before making a bee line directly into downtown Topeka.

It seems as if people heeded the warning, as fatalities were minimal. I even believe the National Weather Service (weather bureau) in Topeka at Billard Airport took a hit by the tornado.

I remember the infamous quote from Bill Kurtis, who was a reporter for WIBW-TV saying "For God's Sake, Take Cover" as the F5 missed the station to the south.
 
Feb 14, 2005
879
22
11
Charleston, South Carolina
Yeah, that was a noted historical event for some time but the significance has slowly faded with time.

The only real recollection I have is through the story of a great aunt who got caught outside. Although I don't recall many of the details, I do remember she told a great story that spooked us kids. One detail I do recall is she found herself literally running down the sidewalk in search of a shelter and had plate glass windows blowing out from shop storefronts just behind her path. Besides that, reading about the impact on Washburn College, its students and faculty, was really a lesson in persaverance.

The legend of Burnett's Mound, and it's utter fallacy, should have proved instructive that old Indian legends like this were better off being ignored by the people of the plains. However, even years beyond this event, legends like this (eg. the protection provided by the confluence of the Little Arkansas and Big Arkansas rivers in Wichita) unfortunately persisted, passed on from elders to children.
 

J Holder

EF2
Mar 30, 2005
129
9
6
Osage city, KS
The Burnett's Mound legend had been proven to be BS well before 1966 as this wasn't the first tornado to hit town. A look a the records show there were several hits and near misses between 1950 and 1966.

I've been told by several very credible sources that the Weather bureau at the time was asleep at the switch. Airmen working in the control tower at Forbes Air Force base provided warning to the bureau after watching it form West of Auburn but were ignored because the weather bureau employees didn't see it on radar.

The official death toll was listed at 16, but one person later died several months later due to injuries as a result of the storm, which should have made the count 17. I also know of one woman who had a complete mental breakdown after being trapped in the rubble for 5 days who never recovered her faculties despite millions (in 1960's and 70's dollars) spent by her husband for mental health treatment at Menninger and other clinics with no success.

The mark on Topeka is still there if you know what to look for. I used to work in a 14 story office building downtown, you could look off to the Southwest and see the difference in the trees in the path of the tornado. You can also tell by the new(er) construction of the buildings in the path as well. Once upon a time I heard an audio recording of the Topeka PD radio traffic at the time the tornado hit, a cop followed Rick Douglass down the mound and got caught up in the tornado with him and they had it all on tape. I'm trying to track down a copy of the tape but Topeka PD dispatch has gone through several reorganizations and it wouldn't surprise me if it was gone for good.

Some trivia: The 1966 tornado formed about 4 miles West of Auburn, Kansas. The F4 tornado that struck Emporia, Ks in 1974 followed a parallel path along the turnpike and dissipated in the very same pasture that the 1966 tornado dropped down in.
 
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Oct 25, 2004
568
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64
Tucson, Arizona
My wife was in Jr. High in Topeka in '66....and was at some kind of a school or church "play" practice. She said the tornado was probably at it's closest about 4 blocks from her. Talk about bad wx. luck, three years later she was living in Biloxi/Gulfport Miss. when Hurricane Camille roared ashore. She was in a home only about 7 blocks from the ocean. It was beyond belief that the home she was in wasn't obliterated....as she said that once they came outside...there were big ships pushed wayyy past their place onto shore. These two horrific instances really scarred her mind. Even when the wind blows around here...winds that are not associated with any storm..she'll start shaking. She won't sleep one wink at night if the wind is blowing. Poor thing. Not much I can do about it as her husband, either. All I can do is try to be by her side and talk her down.
 

Bobby Prentice

The legend of Burnett's Mound, and it's utter fallacy, should have proved instructive that old Indian legends like this were better off being ignored by the people of the plains. However, even years beyond this event, legends like this (eg. the protection provided by the confluence of the Little Arkansas and Big Arkansas rivers in Wichita) unfortunately persisted, passed on from elders to children.
This is one of my favorite quotes and fits these situations well:

Latka Gravis (Andy Kaufman) from the TV Show "Taxi" said:
My uncle taught me the only things that separates us from the animals are superstition and pointless ritual.
 
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Oct 25, 2004
568
108
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Tucson, Arizona
Jon, that trivia about the Topeka '66 nader dissipating in the VERY SAME FIELD as the Emporia '74 nader is flat-out unreal. Wow! I wonder if the same farm family has lived there thru both episodes? It would sure make me squirrelly every time the sun went under a cloud if it was my place.
That reminds me of fueling up my rental SUV during last year's chase season. I was in O'Neill Nebraska, and was talking to this really nicely dressed cowboy who was also standing there in the pump islands fueling up his truck. He saw the "Chase Team" magnetic stickers on the side of my vehicle and struck up a brief conversation. He told me he'd lived around there all his life, and spoke about "this one poor guy's farm house that has been "OBLITERATED" three separate times in the last 40 years by tornadoes"!!! Those were his exact words. From as near as I could tell from him....this would have been probably in far northern Boone Co. Nebraska, or perhaps near Bartlett, Nebraska.
 

NancyM

EF0
Jun 14, 2013
45
22
11
I remember this tornado. We were in the basement of our Kansas City (Kansas side) home with our own tornado warning, although I've seen no documentation of a tornado or funnel in our area. We knew about the tornado moving through Topeka and somehow I thought that tornado was on its way to Kansas City. I should have looked at a map, but this is probably before I knew anything about typical tornado movement. That was a long time ago, but the fact that it hit Burnett's Mound has stayed with me all these years.
 
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Oct 26, 2007
191
28
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Topeka, Kansas
I saw the rope stage of this tornado after coming up from the neighbor's basement. (I was 12). My father took the famous photos of the injured entering the hospital afterwards.(Rick Douglas and a young boy with his father). My dad was a photographer with the Capital-Journal. Also, one of my chase buddies, Doug Nelson, saw the early stages of the tornado southwest of town, from his home. He heard the roar, and I think he was a few hundred yards from it. His first F5, and he was 16!
 

Mike Smith

The June, 1966, Topeka tornado was the first time the combined watch and warning system (as we think of them today) worked perfectly to save dozens or, maybe, hundreds of lives. The watch was out hours ahead, the warning was timely, and WIBW TV (then the dominant station for news in Topeka) had Bill Kurtis shouting, "For God's sake, take cover!" on the air.

If you would like to learn more: http://www.amazon.com/Warnings-Story-Science-Tamed-Weather/dp/1608320340/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top
 
Oct 25, 2004
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Tucson, Arizona
Rick, I've got an original copy of the Topeka Capital-Journal's special "Tornado" publication that came out shortly after the event. Maybe like many of you, I've got a big couple of boxes stashed away with "TORNADO STUFF" written on the side. Obviously, that's where all my tornado stuff that I think is worth saving gets stored. I really treasure this special publication, and I'm sure I remember your Dad's photo as being in there. I keep it nice and neatly folded in my Tornado box, and pull it out every now and again to marvel at it.
 

John Colaw

Enthusiast
Aug 25, 2013
2
1
0
Greetings All. I was 5 years old and there also, we lived at 2821 Indian Trail. If you look at the 3rd picture (4th graphic) down on this link from NWS- Topeka, our roof is in the upper right hand corner...maybe 2 blocks from the path of total destruction.

link: http://www.crh.noaa.gov/top/events/66tornado.php

What I remember: It was hot, muggy, no wind, and just miserable. The only other day that ever felt like that in almost 30 years in Kansas was 4/26/91 when I was in Wichita.... and both days worked out about the same. we had a neighbor that was going to be gone for the day stop by about 9am and let us know he was leaving the house unlocked if we needed to use the basement. (we were in a split level) dad had left for a bowling tournament and warned mom to keep an eye on the weather.

I don't remember what channel we were watching, but they broke in and said "Don't panic now, but a tornado has been spotted on the ground at Burnett's mound." Mom threw me over her shoulder and ran to the Hawks house (north) to their basement. It kinda looked to a 5yo like half the sky was touching the ground. After it passed I remember the grass being wet, but when we got to our house there was a 2X4 planted into the ground at about a 45 degree angle, and a lot of people sleeping in our house that night.

Aftermath: I remember all the debarked trees around Washburn, but the picture that sticks most with me was the new apartments at about 29th and Gage. The only thing left of the 2nd story was the floor, the bathtubs, and a few bathroom sinks standing in the air supported by the plumbing, but no walls.

Post Script: 30 years later I saw a page on NWS Dodge City that had the date wrong. I sent an e-mail (with an I was there) and got a reply thanking me for pointing out the typo, and then listing about a dozen NWS employees in the mid-west that were there too. And that's the thing about weather tragedies, out of them comes a new generation of Meteorologists that want to know the hows and whys to make the next generation safer.
 
Mar 3, 2012
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Post Script: 30 years later I saw a page on NWS Dodge City that had the date wrong. I sent an e-mail (with an I was there) and got a reply thanking me for pointing out the typo, and then listing about a dozen NWS employees in the mid-west that were there too. And that's the thing about weather tragedies, out of them comes a new generation of Meteorologists that want to know the hows and whys to make the next generation safer.
That's for sure. I thought it was interesting how many people were inspired by the 1953 Worcester tornado as well, including Tom Grazulis, Howie Bluestein, Edwin Kessler and probably others.

And although they're posted elsewhere, I'm surprised the Perry Riddle photos haven't been posted here. One of the most spectacular series of tornado photos I've ever seen, probably rivaled only by Paul Huffman's 4/11/65 "double funnel" series at Midway Trailer Court. Perry Riddle was a Topeka Capital-Journal staff photographer, and he took these from about two miles east of Burnett's Mound just as the tornado was roaring into County Fair Estates subdivision. There are others, but for some reason I can't seem to find where I saved them. I'll add them later if I remember.









Edit: Added the other photo. There may be one more in the series, but I'm not sure.
 
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Oct 10, 2004
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33
Madison, WI
The photos are very reminiscent of some of the violent tornadoes from the April 27, 2011 outbreak (or technically, those tornadoes were reminiscent of their predecessors). I remember thinking as I watched some of the live feeds on that day that I couldn't remember seeing such tornadic violence on video since Moore ('99) and Andover 1991.
 
Oct 26, 2007
191
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Topeka, Kansas
That warm front must have surged northward pretty quickly......I remember that day clearly, and the temps were definitely in the low 80's around 6:30. I also got to see it rope out after it left the airport.:)
 
Feb 14, 2005
879
22
11
Charleston, South Carolina
There is a documentary of the Topeka tornado that I never knew existed before:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ib8yX2ZstME

Some items about the tornado that I never knew about:

1. Topekans knew about the aforementioned Manhattan, KS tornado the same day, which served to keep them on the alert.

2. The Topeka area had a robust storm spotter network.

3. The Topeka NWS had implemented a storm safety/education campaign in the years leading up to the tornado.

4. Washburn College had recently increased the insurance coverage on its campus buildings - good thing because the campus was decimated.

5. The Topeka TV and radio stations physically sent reporters over the the National Weather Bureau office for real-time coverage.
 
Oct 26, 2007
191
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Topeka, Kansas
Mike---your fifth item would also include the Capital-Journal photo staff covering not only the tornado going through town, but covering the injured arriving at the hospital. (My father).
 

GPhillips

EF4
Jul 8, 2004
300
31
11
Topeka KS
It's the 50th anniversary of this event today. NWS Topeka updated its webpage, and added another webpage with additional information including environmental data (plots, analyses and soundings)..

Main page

http://www.weather.gov/top/1966TopekaTornado

Page with additional information in tabs including environmental data, watch text and graphic, etc.

http://www.weather.gov/top/1966TopekaTornadoReview


Additionally, the Capitol Journal as a great website on the tornado, special to this 50th anniversary, here:

http://tornado.cjonline.com/
 
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Apr 25, 2009
64
25
11
Scottsdale, AZ
I witnessed that tornado from the transmitter site of KANU-FM on the KU campus in Lawrence. We had a transmitter engineer's meeting scheduled for that time, and we were all out in the parking lot watching the storm. When we saw the funnel form, one of us, who had a 2 meter ham radio on Topeka Civil Defense net, called it in. We watched the tornado until it became invisible - either rain wrapped or bad contrast. The same cell produced another tornado that hit in the vicinity of Tonganoxie, KS, and another that hit near or in Atchison, KS. I also had a part time job for Alf Landon's WREN-AM in Topeka, and later talked to one of our announcers who had been in a car on top of Burnett's Mound - until the tornado tossed it and him down the hill. He had only a few bruises - a *very* lucky guy.

A day or two later, a friend took my brother and i up over the site in a Cessna 172 and my brother took photos of the damage - these may be the only aerial photos of it - certainly the only ones I have seen. My brother later got a job as a photographer for Professor Eagleman at KU doing tornado damage surveys around the country. Dr. Eagleman had a research radar at Lawrence airport, and I got to see some supercells on it. We had a ham station at the radar to communicate with spotters in the area.

Here's a link to scans of the old photos my brother took.

http://www.tinyvital.com/Weather/StormChase/topeka66.htm


We did have a 6 meter AM ham radio at KANU, and I was a spotter for Olathe Civil Defense using it. This was a couple of years after I started storm chasing.

BTW, the KANU transmitter has moved. In 1966, we had a 600' tower about 100 yards N of the current Space Sciences building at KU.
 
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Oct 26, 2007
191
28
11
Topeka, Kansas
John---Photographers from the Capital-Journal took hundreds of aerial photos of the damage the next day, and I have an 11x14 photo album filled with those damage photos. My dad had access to them because he was one of the photographers there, and as I mentioned in an earlier post, he was sent to the hospital to photograph the injured. Do you have photographs of the funnel? I would love to see what a tornado looks like from over 20 miles away from ground level!:rolleyes:
 
Apr 25, 2009
64
25
11
Scottsdale, AZ
John---Photographers from the Capital-Journal took hundreds of aerial photos of the damage the next day, and I have an 11x14 photo album filled with those damage photos. My dad had access to them because he was one of the photographers there, and as I mentioned in an earlier post, he was sent to the hospital to photograph the injured. Do you have photographs of the funnel? I would love to see what a tornado looks like from over 20 miles away from ground level!:rolleyes:
Rick, thanks for the info. I never saw those pics, although when I followed some links today I saw at least one aerial photo that we hadn't taken, and frankly it would be surprising if we were the only ones up there taking pics.

We don't have photos of the tornado - we were just out in the parking lot of KANU before our meeting, not armed with cameras. But, we could see it very clearly at first - it came out of a rain free base with clear sky behind it. We saw it come down a ways, go up, then come down all the way eventually (as far as we could tell from that distance).

Later, as I mentioned, it became obscured - either behind rain, or simply not visible due to low contrast.

I have seen tornadoes from as far as 35 miles. All it takes is a decent sized funnel, and good contrast behind it.

BTW, while we were standing there, our tower was hit by lightning. I was about 10 feet from it and felt a little jolt. We had really, really good grounding on it - 6" wide copper straps radiating out from the tower for quite a distance.
 
Feb 23, 2015
20
4
0
Minnesota
It's the 50th anniversary of this event today. NWS Topeka updated its webpage, and added another webpage with additional information including environmental data (plots, analyses and soundings)..

Main page

http://www.weather.gov/top/1966TopekaTornado

Page with additional information in tabs including environmental data, watch text and graphic, etc.

http://www.weather.gov/top/1966TopekaTornadoReview


Additionally, the Capitol Journal as a great website on the tornado, special to this 50th anniversary, here:

http://tornado.cjonline.com/
The thing I find amazing is they issued the Tornado Watch at 11:00 AM to take effect at 2 PM. Now a watch isn't issued until it is ready to go into effect right then. But I do remember the days(in the mid to late 80's) of there being about 30 minutes lead time between the issuance of a watch and the time it took effect.