New Book Details Deadliest Tornado in Kansas History (Udall, 1955)
Over the past 70 years, a number of devastating tornadoes have struck Kansas, tearing through towns like Greesburg, Andover and Topeka. But the deadliest tornado in state history took place 68 years ago this month in the tiny town of Udall. A new book tells the tale of the twister that tore through town while most of the residents slept. We asked Commentator Rex Buchanan to review Jim Minick's new book, titled Without Warning.
If you’ve lived in Kansas for very long, you’ve probably got at least one tornado story. And the grandaddy of all Kansas tornado stories is about the one that struck the small town of Udall, southeast of Wichita, in May of 1955. That tornado, the deadliest in Kansas history, killed 77 people.
That tornado hit Udall shortly after dark on May 25. As the title of Minick’s book says, there was virtually no warning. Based on extensive interviews and newspaper accounts, Minick provides a blow-by-blow description of what people in the town went through that awful night.
Many of the stories sound familiar: the wind, the lightening, the pounding hail, the roar of the tornado itself, the shock of emerging afterward into a landscape rendered almost instantly unrecognizable. The storm knocked down the town’s water tower and grain elevators. It destroyed schools and churches and 170 homes.
One rescuer described the scene that night. He said, "There were no lights, no nothing, and it was raining. In the darkness - dark as the inside of your hat - you could hear people screaming, moaning, calling for their families. My God, it was terrible.”
Minick documents the arrival of Mennonite volunteers who came to help clean up, and the parade of gawkers who drove long distances just to stare at the destruction.
He focuses in particular on the story of Bobby Atkinson, a high schooler in Udall who lost his mother and two brothers in the tornado. After the tornado, Atkinson crawled into what was left of a car. He was eventually found and taken to a hospital in Winfield with a fractured skull, broken ribs, two broken arms, and a two-by-two board driven partway through his body. I'd heard Atkinson’s story before from a Udall resident, but I never quite believed it until reading this book.
Other parts of the Udall story are different and really reflect an earlier time. No storm-chasers followed the tornado's path.
Not only was there no warning, but authorities were slow to arrive on the scene, and even after they did, their response was seemingly uncoordinated. Accounting for the dead and missing took days.
I’ve heard the Udall tornado compared to the 2007 tornado that hit Greensburg, Kansas, with roughly the same force and roughly the same time of evening. Far fewer died in the Greensburg storm, 11 compared to 77, mostly because of the vastly improved early warning that gave people lead time to take cover.
So, the next time you hear tornado sirens or a tornado warning on TV or the radio, remember that one reason for the warning system lies in the lessons learned 68 years ago at Udall. Maybe think about the people who died that terrible night, and made your life a little safer.
Commentator Rex Buchanan is a writer, director emeritus at the Kansas Geological Survey and the reader of many books. He lives in Lawrence. He was reviewing the new book Without Warning, written by Jim Minick and published by the University of Nebraska Press.