June 1966 tornado outbreak sequence
A photograph of the F5 Topeka, Kansas tornado.
|Duration of tornado outbreak2
||$250.603 million (1966 USD)
$694.79 million (2008 USD)
||18 fatalities, 543 injuries
||Southern and Midwestern United States, Great Plains
1Most severe tornado damage; see Fujita scale
2Time from first tornado to last tornado
The June 1966 tornado outbreak sequence[nb 1][nb 2] was a series of tornado outbreaks which occurred between June 2 and June 12.
The most destructive tornado of this event occurred on the early evening of June 8, 1966, when Topeka, Kansas was struck by an F5 rated tornado. It started on the southwest side of town, moving northeast, passing through several subdivisions and over a local landmark named Burnett's Mound. 57 tornadoes were confirmed during the 11-day span, which left 18 people dead and 543 injured.
Topeka, Kansas tornado
According to a local Native American legend, Burnet's Mound (a local landmark that was named after Potawatomi Indian chief Abram Burnett, and also believed to be an ancient Native American burial ground) was thought to protect the city from tornadoes, suggesting that the 250 feet (76 m) hill would cause a tornado that was approaching Topeka to disintegrate. A few years earlier, a water tower had been built directly on the mound, which sparked controversy among many Topeka residents as they felt it would negatively affect the mound's ability to keep the city safe from tornadic activity. However, ten other tornadoes had struck the city since Kansas state tornado records were first kept in 1889. The 1966 tornado was significantly stronger than the other ten tornadoes that struck Topeka prior to June 8.
The Topeka tornado began developing at 6:55 p.m. Central Time on June 8, touching down 8 miles (13 km) west of the city. The National Weather Service could not detect the developing tornado on radar as the Topeka forecast office used a modified military radar that was donated by the U.S. government following World War II. While it was considered state-of-the-art for its time, it had a limited ability to detect tornadic activity, compared to the Doppler weather radar of the present day. Around 7:30 p.m., a 1/4 to 1/2-mile (400–800 m) wide tornado tracked into the southwest side of town, moving northeast, and passed over Burnett's Mound. Bill Kurtis, then a reporter for WIBW-TV (channel 13; then a hybrid CBS/ABC/NBC affiliate, now only affiliated with CBS) wanted to get people the message to take shelter from the devastating storm, ultimately advising viewers to get to safety by urging in a calm but stern manner, "for God's sake, take cover!"
Damage in downtown Topeka.
After broadcasting a take-cover report on the air while driving down the winding road on Burnett's Mound with the tornado approaching his direction, Rick Douglass, a reporter for radio station WREN (1250 AM, now KYYS), attempted to take shelter under an overpass, while trying to do a second live report on the storm. Douglass was carried by the tornado, becoming airborne for a few seconds, and was dropped over one block away. Douglass, whose clothes were ripped from his body, was pushed by the strong winds along the ground until the tornado passed on to make a six-block swath across Topeka. Douglas was found with dirt and debris covering his body. When he arrived at an area hospital, a nurse placed a cover over Douglas's face – believing he had perished; in an interview with The History Channel's Wrath of God, Douglass stated that he then pulled off the cover, resulting in the attending nurse wincing in reaction; Douglass found shards of debris in his skin for several years after the tornado and was left with a smell he described in the interview as "a mix of blood, guts, wood and metal" for several weeks.
Many homes were swept completely away in residential areas of Topeka.
The tornado first struck residential areas, cleanly sweeping away entire rows of homes and hurling vehicles hundreds of yards through the air. Grass was scoured from the ground as well, according to eyewitnesses. Washburn University took a direct hit from the tornado, and many of the large stone buildings on campus were badly damaged or destroyed. A 300-pound section of stone wall was torn from one building and thrown two miles away. One vehicle on campus was reportedly lofted and thrown over the top of the university's ROTC building, before coming to rest on the 50-yard line of the football field. The tornado went on to rip through the central part of the city, hitting the downtown area. Buses were crushed as the transportation barn was collapsed by the tornado and the trains on the Santa Fe Railway were overturned. Most of the downtown buildings were badly damaged or had their windows blown out. Cars were flipped and tossed, and streets were blocked with debris. Many workers at the AT&T building downtown took shelter after a co-worker notified people of the approaching tornado, which they could not hear through the soundproof operating room. The building was hit, but only light damage occurred. The Kansas State Capitol building also experienced minor damage.
Ironically as the storm raged on past the downtown area, meteorologists at the National Weather Service Topeka forecast office (located at Philip Billard Municipal Airport) had to take shelter as well, as the tornado tracked through the airport, flipping over several airplanes. At 7:29 p.m., 34 minutes after it touched down, the tornado dissipated after ripping through the airport; by this point, the tornado had traversed 22 miles (35 km) of the city, with a damage path width of 1/2 mile (800 m). The most intense damage occurred in residential areas on the east side of town, partly due to the close proximity of housing units. Homes and other buildings along the tornado's path were completely obliterated, and the National Weather Service Topeka forecast office years later rated this tornado as an F5 on the Fujita scale.
Then-mayor Chuck Wright later issued a decree that those caught looting would be shot on sight. The Kansas National Guard was called in to handle the situation. Streets in devastated areas of the city were filled with sightseers checking out the ruins of homes and businesses, hampering efforts from first responders to find those missing under rubble. Families of victims also came onto the scene to try to find those missing.
The total damage estimate was put at $250 million (US$ 738 million in 2017) making it one of the costliest tornadoes in U.S. history. Even to this day, with inflation factored in, the Topeka tornado stands as the seventh costliest tornado on record.
820 homes were destroyed and 3,000 others were damaged. 250 businesses were destroyed and 2,390 were damaged including a major shopping center. 330 of the damaged homes and businesses suffered major damage and the other 5,000 received lesser degrees of damage. Hundreds of apartments were destroyed. Many government buildings, public buildings, other structures and much other property were damaged or destroyed.
Overall, 16 people were killed, and many others were injured. However, it is believed that had the tornado hit during school and work hours or during the night, that as many as 5,000 people would have been killed. Bill Kurtis was credited for saving many lives with his urgent message to take cover.
- 5 Tornadoes were confirmed but were not given an F-Scale intensity.
Confirmed tornadoes by Fujita rating
June 3 event
June 4 event
June 5 event
June 6 event
June 7 event
June 8 event
June 9 event
June 10 event
June 11 event
June 12 event
- ^ An outbreak is generally defined as a group of at least six tornadoes (the number sometimes varies slightly according to local climatology) with no more than a six-hour gap between individual tornadoes. An outbreak sequence, prior to (after) modern records that began in 1950, is defined as, at most, two (one) consecutive days without at least one significant (F2 or stronger) tornado.
- ^ All damage totals are in 1966 United States dollars unless otherwise noted.