Being both a weather junkie and Kansas history junkie, I scrambled to pull Bonar Menniger’s work off the new book cart at the public library. Beautifully printed, the book includes pages of award-winning photographs that ran in the Topeka Capital-Journal, and I would venture to guess that this book will serve as the definitive piece written on the F-5 tornado that hit Topeka in 1966.
Anyone who has read David Laskin’s account of The Children’s Blizzard already knows that the U.S.’s early track record with weather agencies was a little shaky. In those early days, there was a ban on issuing warnings for blizzards, hurricanes and tornadoes, out of fear of causing widespread panic – sometimes at the expense of the lives of the very people they didn’t want to worry. I could understand this misguided approach during a blizzard set in 1888. What I found shocking was to discover that the reluctance to issue tornado warnings continued well into the middle of the 20th century.
For many Kansas towns, the wake-up call came when Udall was nearly annihilated by a tornado in 1955. Meteorologists, city management officials and others realized they had to find ways to both proactively warn people of immediate danger and promote tornado preparedness through public education. Topeka was at the forefront of developing a city-wide warning system and educating its citizens in what to do if a tornado approaches the city.
What Menninger does extremely well is interconnect the chaos of Topekans, the weather bureau, and a monster of a tornado into a chilling narrative that traces the tornado’s path over Burnett Mound and through the heart of Topeka, where it chewed through neighborhoods and destroyed most of Washburn University’s historic buildings. Having traveled to and through Topeka many times, I can’t tell you how unnerving it is to know areas I’ve passed by many times – including Burnett’s Mound, of which I new nothing before reading this book – were torn to shreds only a few decades ago. Chapter by chapter, Menninger follows the F-5’s trail, revealing its impact on a town that previously believed it was tornado-proof.
Menninger’s other great accomplishment was recreating Topeka in 1966. Readers will really get a feel for who lived there, where they worked, what they did. It is truly a snapshot – both before and after a tornado all but cut a city in half.
And Hell Followed With It is a worthy book about a moment in time that ultimately changed the way we handle weather emergencies. It’s also a pretty amazing story about survival and recovery. And Kansas. And tornadoes. Go. Read it now.