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Topeka Tornado 1966

Santa Fe shops damaged in the 1966 Topeka tornado“The tornado sirens went off. The sky was a sickening greenish color and it felt like something was wrong. I went in the old barrack apartment where we lived and turned on the TV. Bill Kurtis stepped in front of the weatherman who was giving his regular report. Bill calmly explained a large tornado was on the ground and headed our way.”

The Honorable D. Keith Anderson recalled his warning of the Topeka tornado on June 8, 1966. Like many Topekans he and his family immediately sought shelter.

Kansans are accustomed to the threat of tornados, but few strike populated areas. The magnitude of this storm was unprecedented in Topeka. Registered as an F5, the powerful storm traveled from the southwest of the city to the northeast, causing the deaths of 17 people, and more than $104 million in damage. The tornado was on the ground for 34 minutes, and a damage area 21 miles long and one-half mile wide. Many people thought such a tornado would never hit Topeka due to the legend of Burnett’s Mound. Legend claimed that the mound was sacred and protected Topeka from tornados. The mound didn’t stop this storm.

Crossing downtown Topeka, the storm punched a hole in the Kansas State Capitol dome, destroyed the multistory National Reserve Building, and damaged a number of public and private office buildings.

1966 Topeka tornado nears Burnett's MoundWhile many were devastated by the loss, some managed to find humor in the storm. Bob Anderson remembered what he did at the time of the storm. “I could hear the sirens in the distance…I grabbed the cash box and locked up the bar. After about 30 minutes, I returned and unlocked the tavern. It was then that I discovered that we had inadvertently locked one of the patrons in the bar during the whole crisis. The guy didn’t talk to me for months after that, but we noticed he had put a good dent in the Budweiser during his ordeal.” 

The tornado caused massive damage across town, and destroyed much of the Washburn campus. As a result many students were forced to attend classes in trailers for the next few years. Charles Wright, mayor of Topeka at the time of the storm, recalled the impact. "As Topeka's mayor when the tornado hit, I was also on the board of regents. Three months before the tornado, the board reinsured every building on the Washburn campus for the maximum, so when the tornado swept away some of the buildings, Washburn had a nice insurance check. I worked closely with President Henderson to restore the campus and to secure mobile classrooms from the federal government. After the mobile classrooms were on site, I went to Washington. Dr. Henderson asked me to see if we could get air conditioning units in the mobile classrooms, so I met with former Florida Governor Ferris Bryant, head of the Office of Emergency Planning (OEP, today called FEMA). I thanked him for all the help his office had given and said that I had only one request. He said, 'What's that Mr. Mayor.' I said, 'Sir, we need air conditioning units for the classrooms.' Then he said, 'Well, Mr. Mayor, you will just have to park them under the trees,' to which I replied, 'Sir we had a tornado and don't have any trees!' So we got the air conditioning units."

The 1966 tornado changed the architectural landscape of Topeka and those who lived through the storm. The severity of the F5 tornado helped meteorologists understand more about violent storms. It stands as the seventh costliest tornado in the nation's history.

Entry: Topeka Tornado 1966

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: July 2011

Date Modified: July 2017

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.