40 years after tornado in Topeka, technology boosts forecasting ability

June 8, 1966.

On that day – nearly 40 years ago – a huge tornado struck southwest Topeka and stayed on the ground for 30 minutes, chugging through the heart of the city, destroying hundreds of buildings, killing 16 people and injuring 500.

The F5 tornado, or “incredible tornado” on the Fujita scale, did $100 million in damage, making it one of the costliest tornadoes in Kansas history, according to the National Weather Service.

Though many could not escape the devastation, Topekans were warned before the tornado struck about 7 p.m. Because of the weather conditions, storm spotters had been deployed early so radio and TV stations were able to announce warnings.

“The warning was because of the spotters,” said George Phillips, a meteorologist for the weather service in Topeka that’s responsible for covering 23 counties, including Douglas County.

National Weather Service meteorologist intern Gordon Strassberg, Topeka, prepares to launch a weather balloon equipped with a transmitting device Tuesday at the National Weather Service station in Topeka. Although forecasting technology has improved greatly in the 40 years since a tornado caused massive damage in Topeka, balloons still are used to collect information from the upper atmosphere and play a key role in forecasts.

More recently, May 8, 2003, is a date Phillips and others remember well.

“I’ve been here 12 years, and that was the most significant series of tornadoes we’ve had in one day,” he said. “We had four people issuing warnings at the same time for different storms.”

One of the tornadoes was an F2, classified as “significant,” that struck southwest Lawrence, damaging an apartment complex and scores of houses.

“We had about a dozen tornadoes that day in our warning area, and several were on the ground at the same time,” said Curtis Holderbach, meteorologist in charge of the Topeka weather service that’s based at Phillip Billard Airport.

The tornado that struck Lawrence caused no significant injuries. It was born in a thunderstorm that moved into Douglas County from Osage County where a larger tornado had struck near Lyndon.

Spotters also played a key role in the warning process for the Lawrence tornado. But the equipment used to track the multiple thunderstorms and tornadoes and issue warnings by the weather service today and the equipment used in 1966 are as different as night and day.

Primitive radar

Weather radar was still relatively primitive in 1966 at the Topeka weather service.

“They would have used an older military-type of radar pulled out of some plane,” said Phillips, the meteorologist in charge of training. “It wasn’t a powerful radar, but you could see things that were close. It would have been a black and white display.”

Meteorologist George Phillips, Topeka, monitors short-term weather information Tuesday at the weather service in Topeka. Computers were virtually nonexistent in the 1966 weather center, and weather maps were printed charts, Phillips said.

Meteorologists in Topeka could dial into more powerful radars in Kansas City and Wichita, but they had to get special permission, Phillips said. The radar then didn’t show a storm’s intensity but might show a “hook” indicating a tornado, he said.

In 1966, weather centers issued storm warnings by punch-typing them onto paper and sending them by teletypewriters, Phillips said.

“You couldn’t see what you were typing,” he said.

Computers were virtually nonexistent in the 1966 weather center, and weather maps were printed charts, Phillips said.

Today meteorologists constantly study multiple computer screens. While one meteorologist digests and dispenses information about cloud heights, visibility and wind speeds to area airports, another prepares the forecasts placed on the service’s Internet site and sent to media outlets.

A computer screen at the National Weather Service in Topeka displays the weather across the nation.

Weather balloons have been used for decades to collect information from the upper atmosphere. They continue to play a key role in forecasting. Two balloons carrying small battery-powered transmitters are launched daily: one about 6 a.m. and another about 6 p.m. A third is launched if more information is needed about severe weather, said meteorologist intern Gordon Strassberg, who launches the balloons.

Severe weather

Storm watches are issued by the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., but the local weather services issue and cancel warnings in their areas. A meteorologist can issue a warning for a particular area using the computer at his or her desk without consulting anyone.

“That’s what we are trained to do,” meteorologist Jennifer Stark said. “If we have available staff and it’s a big enough event, we’ll have two people sitting at each work station, with one person issuing the warning and the second person checking it.”

Phones also are ringing as the weather service receives calls from the media, emergency management directors and storm spotters, Stark said.

“It gets really busy during severe weather,” she said.