55 Years Ago Today..

While many of us here in Central Oklahoma remember May 3rd, for some in Northern Oklahoma and especially Kansas, they recall May 25th. Otherwise known as the 1955 Great Plains Tornado Outbreak. That day, 17 tornadoes occurred in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. Oklahoma saw the most, with 10 tornado reports, including 2 F-5 tornadoes. These 2 storms formed in Northern Oklahoma during the late evening hours and then tracked into Kansas. Rumor has it that the Wichita, Kansas TV stations, went on air that night saying that the skies were clear and that there was only a slight chance of a thunderstorms, but that most of the activity from that morning had moved out. At that the time, doppler radar was not available to TV stations.

At 9:00pm, a tornado formed in Noble County and moved north. By 9:27pm, it was a 500 yard wide wedge tornado that was ripping across the eastern part of Blackwell. 20 people died that night, mainly in the eastern side of the Blackwell City limits. As a matter of fact, only a few “warnings” were ever issued that day. Tornado warnings were not the same then as they are now.  The “alert” below came in during the mid-afternoon period giving the threat for tornadoes that day. Notice how it claims that Udall and Blackwell are on the fringes of the storm threat, and that it’s very generic. (You would not see something that generic today. But, back then, that is all we had).

A second tornado formed in Northern Kay County which would again move to the north, passing to the west of Gueda Springs, Kansas, snaking around the city of Oxford before slamming right into the town of Udall. Again though, the Wichita TV stations were on air saying that most of the storms that night were over . The residents of Udall were left believing that the tornado threat was over. At the end of the news, the stations emptied and the meteorologists went home. Little did they know there was a 1300 yard wide tornado on the ground, moving across Southern Kansas, heading towards the town of Udall. At 10:35pm, the tornado ripped into the town of Udall, killing 80 people and injuring over 200. All, with practically no warning. This would go down as Kansas’ deadliest tornado.

It wasn’t until a county sheriff was out on night patrol, that he would learn of the destruction that had just happened in this tiny town. The town had been leveled, literally.

So, what have we learned from this night? Early in the 1950’s, The Weather Buerau was forbidden from issuing such things as “tornado warnings”. It was thought that the phrase would invoke fear. Some of the biggest “lessons learned” would come 50 years later, when a supercell would approach the tiny town of Greensburg.

Let’s compare the 2 storms. Both Udall and Greensburg were impacted by large F5’s/EF-5 tornadoes that had winds in excess of 200 mph. Both storms were moving north which is interesting since most tornadoes move from the southwest to the northeast. Both storms were over a mile and a half wide. Both storms struck late at night and both storms impacted towns of similar size in Southern Kansas. Even the radar illustrations look similar.

Both radar’s were showing images similar. (The image on the bottom is a hand drawing from Tinker. Back then, that is how radar images were analyzed). But, one thing was noted that was different from the 2 storms. And, that was the number of people killed. Udall, who received no warnings was left with over 80 dead and hundreds injured. Greensburg was left with a little over 10 dead and injuring 60. Still a lot, but the outcome could have been much worse. So, how is it that 2 storms, that looked incredibly similar came back with different results when it comes to those killed? It was because of the amount of warning given. Greensburg had over 30 minutes of warning being given to them by the local media and storm chasers. Had Greensburg received the same amount of warning that Udall did, then there would have been hundreds killed. But, the TV meteorologists in Kansas were all over this storm. Had they not, we could have witnessed a 21st century Udall tornado all over again. (Just remember that the next time you hear someone gripe that the local meteorologists are ruining your programming for the night)

-Damon

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