Keeping an Eye to the Sky

The June 8, 1966 Topeka Tornado



June 8th marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most destructive and deadliest tornadoes in history. The massive 1966 Topeka tornado killed 16 people, injured 500 others, and caused over $200 million damage; at the time, the highest in American history. After factoring for inflation, the '66 tornado still ranks as one of the costliest on record, with adjusted estimates upwards of $1.8 billion. The tornado formed at 6:55 PM west of Auburn in southwest Shawnee County, and cut a 22 mile long path, at times a half-mile wide, across the heart of the city. Total devastation occurred along an 8 block section in the center of Topeka. Every building on the Washburn University campus was either destroyed or heavily damaged producing $10 million damage, alone. City-wide about 800 homes were completely destroyed and nearly 3,000 damaged. Even the state Capitol sustained damage from the flying debris, as did many downtown buildings. The tornado was later classified as an F5, at the top of the Fujita Intensity Scale, with winds estimated at over 250 mph. Power and utilities in many parts of the city were out for weeks and hundreds were left homeless.

Entering the southwest part of Topeka, the tornado roared across Burnett's Mound, ending a long-standing legend that the Mound would deflect any tornadoes and spare the city. The tornado tracked northeast at about 35 mph, but weakened after leaving the downtown area. The tornado finally dissipated just east of Billard Airport on the city's northeast side after being on the ground for about a half an hour. [Source]

The Topeka area had a robust storm spotter network in 1966. Pictured below, 32 year old John Meinholdt was a member of Topeka's weather spotter group, the Volunteer Emergency Service Team, and the first to alert the Topeka Weather Bureau of the approaching tornado from his post on Burnett's Mound. With the limited weather radar technology of the day, the Weather Bureau was dubious, but Meinholdt insisted the tornado was down and approaching, convincing them to issue a tornado warning. In a 1996 interview, Meinholdt recalled alerting two lovers on the hill, before hightailing it down the mound and escaping unhurt. Meinholdt turned onto Interstate 470 at the bottom of the mound and drove to S.W. Burlingame Road. Boards, nails, roofs of houses and other debris covered the highway.

Meinholdt's efforts during the violent storm didn't go unrecognized. Richard Garrett, meteorologist in charge of the Topeka Weather Bureau, issued the following statement on June 13, 1966:

Meinholdt was later honored by the Fraternal Order of Police board of directors for "service above and beyond the call of duty despite great personal danger." The U.S. Department of Commerce presented him with its Public Service Award for "service contributing to the public safety and welfare performed for the weather bureau." He went on to conduct weather alert seminars with the Shawnee County Office of Civil Defense, but he never again volunteered as a spotter. [Source]

Even today, in the age of advanced technology and Doppler radar, volunteer weather spotters, SKYWARN and Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) members remain the "eyes and ears" of the National Weather Service providing ground truth, helping them determine when and where to issue warnings.

Links

June 8, 1966 Tornado Photo Gallery by the Topeka Capital Journal
Wikipedia: June 1966 tornado outbreak sequence
A Twist of Fate