Tuesday marks 55th Anniversary of Topeka Tornado

Tuesday marks 55 years since the historic weather event
Updated: Jun. 8, 2021 at 12:00 AM CDT
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TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - An F5 Tornado ripped through Topeka, Kan., on June 8, 1966, leaving 17 dead and over $200 million in damage, which at the time, was the highest in American history.

Tornado’s Path

The Topeka Tornado, which struck around 7 pm on a mild but muggy evening, claimed 16 lives and injured over 500 people. This F5 tornado was a half-mile wide at times and had a path of about 22 miles through the heart of the city. With a forward northeast speed of about 30 mph, the tornado moved from its birth in extreme southwest Shawnee county, near Auburn, across the city, to its conclusion east of Billard Airport in around 30 minutes.


Damage in Downtown Topeka

About 820 homes were destroyed and 3000 damaged as entire blocks were leveled to splinters in seconds. Every building on the Washburn University campus was damaged, many totally destroyed from the tornado’s violent winds estimated at around 300 mph. The Capitol Dome sustained damage from tremendous flying debris, as did many downtown Topeka buildings. Power and other utilities were out in much of the community for weeks.

June 8, 1966
June 8, 1966

History of 1966 Topeka tornado remembered by WU survivor and Topeka DAR

Damage in Southwest Topeka

Most of the Topeka received ample warning as storm spotters were deployed early, and a tornado watch had been in effect for several hours. Many people were at home having dinner and watching TV when the warning was announced and sirens sounded. Thorough and specific tornado educational plans in place through the county and city for many years paid off as residents took cover.

Total dollar cost was put at $100 million making it, at the time, the costliest tornado in American history. Even to this day, with inflation factored in, the Topeka tornado stands as one of the costliest on record. The violent tornado passed directly over Burnetts Mound, in southwest Topeka, ending an old Indian legend that the mound would protect the city from tornadoes.

‘66 Topeka Tornado survivor recalls her first major weather event

Manhattan Tornado

Often overshadowed by the Topeka destruction, a large tornado also hit the city of Manhattan on June 8th causing 65 injuries. The Manhattan Tornado hit about 545pm on the northwest edge of the city, destroying 11 homes and damaging 328 others. Losses at Kansas State University alone totaled nearly $2 million. This tornado had a 19-mile long path beginning east of Fort Riley to northeast of Manhattan. Shortly after the Topeka tornado, two other tornadoes were reported in Leavenworth county, east of Topeka. One additional fatality and two injuries occurred near Jarbalo.

Emporia Tornado

June 8th also marks the 47th anniversary of the Emporia tornado which hit the city and surrounding areas. The 1974 tornado ripped through populated sections on the northwest side of Emporia killing 6 people and injuring 200.

The tornado was rated an F4 on the Fujita Tornado Intensity scale due to massive damage and destruction at an Emporia shopping center, mobile home park, nursing home, apartment complex and residential homes. Most of the deaths were in the mobile home park, while property damage in Lyon county was estimated at $25 million. Ten farmsteads were also damaged in rural areas along the tornado path.

The tornado hit around 6 PM, was up to a half-mile wide and tracked nearly 38 miles across Lyon, Osage, and Shawnee counties before finally dissipating southwest of Auburn.

The June 8, 1974, Emporia tornado occurred on the same date as the infamous 1966 Topeka tornado and is often overshadowed by the incredible damage of the Topeka tornado.

Can the devastation of June 8, 1966, happen again? Sadly 2011 proved that it can as violent tornadoes hit population centers and caused over 550 fatalities across the country. We can’t stop storms from forming but we can provide the best warning services possible given the state of science and our technology which has allowed for warnings to be provided with greater lead time than ever especially for violent tornadoes. However, we also need to continue to improve communications with those at risk and to continue to look at improving the sheltering options of those who have no underground shelters.

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