Kansas Historical Society hosts author of new book detailing deadly Udall tornado
Author Jim Minick said he wanted to honor survivors’ true stories of the deadliest tornado in Kansas history by making his new book nonfiction.
Minick, a Virginia-based writer and university professor, talked about his book, “Without Warning: The Udall Kansas Tornado,” and the inspiration behind it during a webinar hosted by the Kansas Historical Society on Sep. 13. Minick said over Zoom that the idea for the book was formed in 2011, when his sister-in-law told him about her hometown of Udall being blown away by a tornado more than 60 years ago.
“With her help, I was able to start talking to people in the town,” Minick said. “I started to realize how intense those memories still were (for the survivors), how intense the storm had been.”
The book details the lives of the town’s residents who survived the violent nighttime tornado. Minick’s work includes a map of Udall, which at the time of the storm had about 600 residents. More than 80 of those people died in the tornado, which was later rated an F5 by the National Weather Service based on the destruction.
The night of May 25, 1955, a supercell thunderstorm formed in north-central Oklahoma, where it spawned a tornado that struck the town of Blackwell and killed 20 people. From there, the storm tracked northeast into Kansas with no alerts to notify the public of the danger.
“It hit Udall at 10:35 p.m.,” Minick said. “In roughly three minutes, it destroyed almost all of the buildings in town.”
National Weather Service-Wichita meteorologist Chance Hayes said there’s a significant difference between the way tornado warnings worked in the 1950s compared with the warning systems in place today. At that time, a tornado warning encompassed a much broader area and was more akin to a modern tornado watch, which is issued when conditions favor the formation of tornadoes.
“Today we can refine (a tornado warning) down to the storm itself, and warn folks in many different ways,” Hayes said. “The ability for people to be notified and aware of a dangerous situation today is much better from when the Udall tornado occurred.”
The official death toll from the tornado in Udall was 82. Many of those killed were children, including 12-year-old Gary Atkinson, whom Minick used to introduce his book.
“Gary delivered newspapers to most everybody in town,” Minick said. “That day would be the last time he delivered papers, the last time he rode his bicycle, the last time he ate a meal.”
Gary Atkinson’s brother, Bobby Jr., was one of Minick’s main sources for. Minick said Bobby Atkinson described in detail what it felt like being pummeled by debris propelled by the mile-wide tornado as it swept over Udall.
“He said it felt like somebody was shooting him in the back with a shotgun over and over, while somebody else hit him in the head with a ballpeen hammer, over and over,” Minick said. “He had incredible injuries. … Sticking out of his back and chest was a two-by-two wood board, it had punctured his lung.”
Minick described how Bobby Atkinson crawled with two broken arms and a broken leg to the eventual safety of a Winfield hospital.
“In the days after, Bobby learned that both his younger brothers died,” Minick said. “A few days after, his mother also died. Roughly six months after the storm, his father Bobby Sr. died of throat cancer.”
Even though he was severely injured and orphaned by the tornado, Minick said Bobby Atkinson Jr. kept on going “and still is going.”
Minick’s talk was part of the Historical Society’s monthly Museum After Hours program, a public educational series that focuses on different Kansas historical topics.
Trae Johnson, the assistant director of education and outreach at the historical society, wrote in an email that the Kansas Museum of History is dedicating a section of its new themed gallery to the topic of state weather disasters.
The new exhibit, titled “Forces of Nature,” will explore what happens when humans come into conflict with their natural environment, Johnson said. The museum is slated to reopen late next year following renovations and closures spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic.