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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Fifty years ago today the town of Udall, Kansas, was nearly wiped from the landscape. In 1955, a powerful F5 tornado, with winds estimated at 300 miles per hour, roared through Udall, destroying all but a handful of buildings. When it was over, 80 people were dead and 270 injured. It was the deadliest tornado ever to hit Kansas and the last in the country to claim that many lives. As NPR's Greg Allen reports, Udall's experience changed how weather forecasters and the public respond to one of nature's most powerful forces.

GREG ALLEN reporting:

In 1955, the science of forecasting tornadoes was only a few years old. In fact, until the late '30s, the word `tornado' itself was banned from all weather bureau reports. Officials worried that because forecasts covered such a large area, tornado warnings would unduly alarm the public. But by the 1950s, meteorologists were beginning to understand the weather conditions that spawned funnel clouds. Long before the era of weather radios and emergency broadcasts, though, the weather bureau hadn't figured out how to effectively use that information to protect the public. In an interview in 2003, Lester "Bud" Sweet(ph) remembered exactly what the weather was like in south-central Kansas 50 years ago today.

(Soundbite of 2003 interview)

Mr. LESTER "BUD" SWEET: It was hot and muggy and windy and very humid. And then that evening, why it started clouding up and a little thunder and lightning. And the first thing I knew it was hailing, and I told Roxy(ph)--I said, `There goes the wheat crop with the hail.' And about 20 minutes later, we had two-by-fours and two-by-sixes and stuff coming through the north side of our house, on the north wall.

ALLEN: Bud Sweet died last year, but in 1955, he and his wife Roxy lived in a little house on the east side of town. Nearby, friend and neighbor Gaylord Thompson also was worrying about hail damage, but he says none of the weather forecasts that day said anything about tornadoes. Like most of those in town who had a TV, he watched the 10:00 news.

Mr. GAYLORD THOMPSON: The weather--they had the weather and nobody said anything about tornadoes. And at that time, we was having a hailstorm. Out there, out in the garden, I was hollering about it. I guess I didn't need to worry about it 'cause I didn't have it after that night.

ALLEN: Udall then, as now, was largely a farming community. Some residents commuted 20 miles into Wichita to work at the Boeing or Coleman plants, and by 10:30 many were already in bed. What they didn't know was that a tornado was speeding their way. Just an hour earlier, Blackwell, Oklahoma, had been devastated and 20 people were killed by a huge tornado, now heading directly for Udall. Sweet recalled that he didn't know a tornado had hit until the wind roaring through his house began picking up his furniture.

(Soundbite of 2003 interview)

Mr. SWEET: Sofas and my chairs and everything were going out the door, and they were just going--Whew!--right on out the window. And about that time, I seen our neighbors' house across the street, Chubbs(ph), just blow up just like that, about 10 sticks of dynamite in it. And I screamed and hollered and told Roxy I was--`We're next.'

ALLEN: Sweet said his wife tried to get under the bed, but the bed floated off of her. When it was over, only one small section of the house, the room they were in, still had a roof. The rest was gone. There were no rafters, just walls and the open sky. When Sweet went across the street to check on his brother's demolished house, he found that his sister-in-law was critically injured.

(Soundbite of 2003 interview)

Mr. SWEET: And I went over there and she had a probably two-and-a-half-foot two-by-four sticking out of her side; splintered and went in her, and she was five months pregnant. And about that time somebody hollered and says, `Anybody need any help?' and I said, `Yes.' Well, they just happened to have a few tools with them and a flashlight, and they had a saw. So I held the end of the two-by-four while the guy sawed about--only left about 4 inches sticking out.

ALLEN: Sweet got his sister-in-law into a hearse, one of several pressed into service as an ambulance. She and the baby both survived. Most of those who made it to their storm shelters were OK, but because there was no warning at all, many were forced to ride out the storm in their houses. After the tornado passed over, Gaylord Thompson went to help others in town.

Mr. THOMPSON: Well, I went off down there in the southwest part of town toward where the high school is, and there was five people who didn't have a stitch of clothes on, just rolled up there in a pile, all of them dead. And I just--I couldn't take it any longer, so I had to leave.

ALLEN: In Udall, 77 people were dead and more were killed on a dairy farm outside of town. The injured were taken to hospitals in Winfield and Wichita. On the day the tornado struck, Greg Gamer was a 22-year-old reporter working for a brand-new TV station, Wichita's KAKE. He recalls the scene in Udall when he arrived the following morning.

Mr. GREG GAMER (Former KAKE Reporter): Devastation, total devastation, with the trees all bare and the houses flattened. There weren't more than one or two or three houses or buildings left standing.

ALLEN: Gamer made his career that day, going on to become a well-known news anchor who worked in Wichita for more than three decades.

1955 wasn't just the beginning of tornado forecasting; it was also the dawn of television. The day after the tornado, KAKE broadcast coverage that riveted Kansans, showing the power of both tornadoes and this new medium.

(Soundbite of 1955 KAKE broadcast)

Unidentified Man: Mr. Davis, Mr. D.D. Davis, we understand you are the station agent in the Santa Fe at Udall.

Mr. D.D. DAVIS: That's right.

Unidentified Man: And I wonder if you could give us some description of what happened to you during the storm?

Mr. DAVIS: Well, I was in the front room of my house, and I heard a sound outside and it sounded like a lot of airplanes. I thought the...

ALLEN: KAKE's film was flown to Chicago, and it appeared that night on all three networks' evening news broadcasts. In 1955, few TV stations employed meteorologists; most relied on the weather bureau for their forecasts. Joe Schaefer heads the National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma. He says before the tornado hit, the Weather Service updated its forecasts for the area around Udall, and it included a tornado watch. But he says the forecast was made in Kansas City, then relayed to Denver before finally being sent to radio and TV stations in Wichita, a long and time-consuming process.

Mr. JOE SCHAEFER (Storm Prediction Center, National Weather Service): By the time all that was done, the--it was about 10:30, 10:45, and the tornado was already over. So the forecast was out; the communications was such a mess that it just didn't get there in time.

ALLEN: Udall's tragedy made it clear that tornado forecasting was worthless unless warnings could be passed on to the public quickly. A National Research Council team dispatched to study the tornado and its aftermath said, quote, "It is clear that attention must be given to the communication process."

Although Udall sent that message, it took the Weather Service another 10 years to revamp its system for relaying tornado warnings to the public. That didn't happen until a public outcry in 1965 following a tornado outbreak in six states that killed 270 people. That's when the National Weather Service began relying on information from storm spotters and created the system of tornado watches and warnings still in use today.

Storm Prediction Center's Joe Schaefer says Udall was a turning point in another way, as well. Coming at the beginning of the television age, it clearly depicted, for a fascinated public, the destructive potential of tornadoes.

Mr. SCHAEFER: Most everybody, if they think about it, at some time has seen the picture of an automobile just totally wrapped around a tree sitting out in the middle nowhere, just this lonesome, leafless tree sitting up and an automobile totally tied around it like a pretzel. And that was taken outside Udall, and that just showed the force inside one of these things and that it's something you got to reckon with.

ALLEN: In Udall, the tornado left a deep wound that has been slow to heal. The town was rebuilt, and many of the survivors returned. But even today, many are reluctant to talk about the tornado and what it did to their community. In a small park in town, though, there's an eloquent reminder. It's a gray stone monument inscribed with 77 names, those who were killed when Udall, Kansas, was nearly eradicated by one of nature's most powerful forces. Greg Allen, NPR News.

NORRIS: You can see that photo of a car frame tangled in a tree and other pictures of the aftermath of the 1955 Udall tornado at our Web site, npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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