Probably the oldest weather joke told around is “If you don’t like Kansas weather, wait a few minutes…it’ll change!”
But there was nothing to joke about on Wednesday, June 8, 1966 when a class F-5 tornado, with estimated winds of over 250 mph, ripped a 22-mile-long path, up to half a mile wide, through Topeka and surrounding areas. On that day 16 people were killed and over 400 were injured. The total financial cost in damage was $100 million, a record high at that time and even today, adjusted for inflation, still one of the most costly tornadoes ever in America.
Across Topeka around 800 homes were wiped off the landscape with almost 3000 more sustaining some kind of damage. Touching down near Auburn, the tornado cut clear across Topeka, flattening homes, destroying Washburn University, and damaging the State Capitol dome and downtown buildings, before lifting back into the sky east of Billiard Airport. The tornado had been on the ground for almost half an hour on its rampage through the city.
For weeks afterward, many residents were left without electricity and utilities. Hundreds of people had no home to return to.
Credit is given to an excellent storm spotter system that sounded the alarm and probably kept many people safe by giving them time to seek shelter.
While weather forecasting has improved remarkably since June 1966 (the weather radar used then was World War II surplus!) we can still only predict nature’s fury, not stop it. Modern weather forecasting makes the public aware of information almost immediately and local television stations like KTWU provide instantaneous announcements from the National Weather Service when severe weather strikes.