1966 Topeka Twister

This is my Grandmother. Ruth Welty's home. You can also see it in the photo below taken from a distance clearly pushed into 11th St. Behind it is the water tower mentioned in the note below. As a child the flood lights on the tower also flooded into the bedroom where I slept when I visited her. I recently wrote a bit more about the tornado in a column I write for a local tabloid.

From the back looking toward the state Capitol Building

Topeka Tornado 1966

This is my Grandmother's house after the twister hit. About a dozen people were killed and several of them on my Grandmother's block. Two were crushed to death by the pool table they were hiding under about a half a block away.

The City's unique water tower stands behind her home.

My Grandmother and her daughter, my Aunt Mary, had been out visiting my Grandmother's step mother on the night of the tornado. When the warnings came my Grandmother wanted to return home but her daughter wouldn't let her. They stayed below ground as the tornado passed overhead and when it had gone my Grandmother rushed to her car to see if her house was alright. She lived about a three minute drive from her step mother's home but it took her half an hour to find a route home through the rubble in the streets.

Her sturdy brick garage was completely gone. What was left of her house was blown completely off its foundation and was set down part way into the street. Had she been at her house when the tornado hit she would have been crushed by bricks (which piled into the corner of the basement where she always went during tornados), or blown away, or electrocuted by fallen wires in her basement, or perhaps drowned by the rain which pooled in the basemen.

My Aunt's little black dog had been locked into the sleeping porch and blew away with it in the tornado. It was a scrappy dog that had once jumped out of her car on a busy street when I'd been driving with her. Four or five days after flying off with Dorothy, Toto (not its real name) found its way back to Grandmother's house.

My Grandmother had grown up in the home. It was one of three or four her father had had built on Eleventh Street. All of them were destroyed.  She had been forced by circumstance to take up residence in her childhood home when her husband, "Harry," died in 1947 of a heart attack. It was all she could afford. On a nostalgic trip I took last year, 2002, I found out from my Aunt Mary that Grandmother used to ride a family horse to Monroe school as a child from her home on Eleventh Street. When she got there the horse walked home on its own. Monroe School later became the segregated black school that prompted Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education.

The day after the tornado, while the rest of Topeka was still in a daze, Ruth Welty kept her head and started looking for a new home and got an apartment before the rest of the city realized what a housing shortage there would be. The tornado had torn a four-block-wide path seven miles through the city.

I felt terrible about not being in Kansas during the tornado. It felt like I'd missed out on a lot of excitement. I had to wait until school was out before I could check out the damage and take these photographs. Although my uncles had retrieved salvageable items from Grandmother's house a few weeks before I got there the house was still sitting on the curb when I arrived. It took a long time to clean up the city. I was able to grub around and found a dozen or so pieces of silverware and one antique platter in the debris. 

This Twister was an F5 the most powerful on the Fugita Scale of Tornados. In the first and second picture you can see a water tower. It still stands behind the McDonalds where my Grandmother's house once stood. In the third picture you can see the National Reserve Life Insurance Building which had to be demolished after being hit. Both buildings are referred to in a story quoted below about the day of the tornado.  Google Topeka tornado for more

          "The old National Reserve Life Insurance Building at 10th and Kansas Avenue remained standing as the tornado passed, although badly damaged. Topekans were to note ironically in the days that followed the painted words on the building: "A refuge in time of storm." They also worried within the next few days whether the tall building would topple. It didn't.  
          The water tower at 11th and Quincy resisted the might of the storm. Weather officials later were to say that the fact it-was filled with water probably prevented its being exploded by the storm."