Topeka A strange feel was in the air that Tuesday morning 20 years ago, a heaviness and mugginess not typical of mid-November.
It felt like tornado weather. But that couldn’t be. Tornadoes only hit Kansas in the spring and early summer, not the fall.
As Topekans found out in the early afternoon of Nov. 15, 1988, tornadoes can strike anytime, anyplace and in any month.
About 2 p.m. that day, an F-2 tornado touched down near S.W. 29th and Wanamaker. Meteorologists later said the twister was virtually impossible to spot with the naked eye. As a result of that and a radar system not nearly as sophisticated as today’s, no warning sirens were sounded in advance.
After its initial touchdown, the tornado cut to the northeast, where it hopped, skipped and jumped in a five-mile path across southwest and west Topeka. The National Weather Service later said the “narrow but strong” tornado was on the ground about 30 percent of the time.
All the while, business was going on as usual in the city. Many people didn’t find out about the twister until after it had gone back into the autumn sky.
Electrical power to sections of southwest Topeka was reported out around 1:55 p.m. That may have kept some tornado sirens silent when they were activated shortly after 2 p.m.
All told, 107 homes and 15 businesses were damaged.
The estimated loss across the city was $3.9 million, but that was in 1988 dollars. The amount would be far more today.
Amazingly, no fatalities and only 22 injuries serious enough to warrant hospital treatment were reported.
A multitude of weather factors converged over northeast Kansas that day, making conditions ripe for a tornado. Warm, moist air from the south was moving north, as winds in the upper atmosphere were from the southwest and west. A cold front, meanwhile, was heading south from the upper Midwest. The colliding fronts triggered storms that produced the Topeka tornado and dozens more.
As he headed to work that day as a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office, Mike Akulow recalls telling his wife, “If the sirens go off today, it’s the real thing.”
Akulow, who was on duty but not in charge of the warning system, said the Topeka tornado was the first to be reported in a line of storms that would produce nearly 45 twisters across the Midwest before the day was done.
The Topeka storm, he said, was the most difficult to spot. “The tornado was rain-wrapped,” he said. “It was imbedded in the rain that was all around it, making it almost impossible to see.”
The weather patterns were wreaking havoc all over Kansas that day, with hail and tornadoes in the eastern part of the state and blizzards in the western part of the state.
Akulow said given today’s advanced technology, it would be highly unlikely for a tornado like the one in November 1988 to hit Topeka before warnings were issued.
Picking up the pieces
It took several weeks for people to clean up debris from the storm and repair their homes. Those whose homes were damaged said neighbors and friends pitched in to help them pick up the pieces.
Through it all, those who were in Topeka that day marveled there weren’t more injuries and were thankful no one died.
Mike Corcoran, 56, who was building manager at Fairlawn Plaza Mall in 1988, a position he holds to this day, thinks back to the tornado every now and then.
Twenty years ago, he might have been tempted to dismiss the threat of severe weather, but not now, not after the tornado of Nov. 15, 1988.
“It doesn’t just happen in the summer,” Corcoran said of tornadoes in Topeka. “It can be anytime.”