Author Jim Minnick said he wanted to honor the true stories of survivors of the deadliest tornado in Kansas history by making his new book factual.
Minnick, a Virginia-based writer and professor, spoke about his book, “Without Warning: Hurricane Udall, Kansas,” and the inspiration behind it during a webinar hosted by the Kansas Historical Society on Sept. 13.
Minnick said over Zoom that the idea for the book came about in 2011, when his sister-in-law told him about her hometown of Udall being hit by a tornado more than 60 years ago.
“With her help, I was able to start talking to people in town,” Minnick said. “I started to realize how powerful those memories were (for survivors), and how intense the storm was.”
The book details the lives of the townspeople who survived the violent nighttime tornado. Minnick’s work includes a map of the city of Udall, which had a population of about 600 people at the time of the storm. More than 80 of those people died in the tornado, which the National Weather Service later classified as an F5 based on the destruction.
On the night of May 25, 1955, a supercell thunderstorm formed in north-central Oklahoma, spawning a tornado that struck the town of Blackwell and killed 20 people. From there, the storm headed northeast into Kansas without any warnings to notify the public of the danger.
“I hit Udall at 10:35 p.m.,” Minnick said. “In about three minutes, almost all the buildings in the city were destroyed.”
There’s a big difference between the way tornado warnings worked in the 1950s compared to the warning systems in place today, said Chance Hayes, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Wichita. At that time, the tornado warning covered a much broader area and was closer to a modern tornado watch, which is issued when conditions are favorable for tornadoes to form.
“Today we can improve (tornado warning) all the way down to the storm itself, and warn people in many different ways,” Hayes said. “People’s ability to be notified and aware of a dangerous situation is much better today than it was when Hurricane Udall struck.”
The official death toll from the tornado in Udall was 82 people. Many of those killed were children, including 12-year-old Gary Atkinson, whom Minnick used to introduce his book.
“Gary delivered newspapers to almost everyone in town,” Minnick said. “That day would be the last time he turned in papers, the last time he rode his bike, the last time he ate a meal.”
Gary Atkinson’s brother, Bobby Jr., was one of Minnick’s main sources. Bobby Atkinson described in detail what it felt like to be propelled by debris from the mile-wide tornado as it swept through Udall, Minnick said.
“He said he felt like someone was shooting him in the back with a gun over and over again, while someone else was hitting him in the head with a ball mill, over and over,” Minnick said. “He suffered unbelievable injuries. … A wooden board was sticking out of his back and chest, split into two pieces, and it had punctured his lung.”
Minnick described how Bobby Atkinson eventually crawled with two broken arms and a broken leg to Winfield Hospital.
“In the following days, Bobby learned that his two younger brothers had died,” Minnick said. “A few days later, his mother also died. About six months after the storm, his father, Bobby Sr., died of throat cancer.
Despite being severely injured and orphaned by the tornado, Minnick said Bobby Atkinson Jr. kept moving forward “and is still going.”
Minnick’s talk was part of the Historical Society’s Monthly After Hours Museum Program, a public education series focusing on various Kansas historical topics.
The Kansas Museum of History is devoting a section of its new exhibit to the topic of weather disasters in the state, Trae Johnson, assistant director of education and outreach at the Historical Society, wrote in an email.
Johnson said the new exhibition, titled “Forces of Nature,” will explore what happens when humans come into conflict with their natural environment. The museum is scheduled to reopen late next year after renovations and closures resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic.