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Deadly '55 Storm Altered U.S. Response to Twisters

On May 25, 1955, a powerful F5 tornado, with winds estimated at 300 miles per hour, roared through the farming community of Udall, Kan., 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 one in the nation to claim that many lives.

The day the twister hit, the National Weather Service had updated its forecast for the area around Udall, and it included a tornado watch. But the forecast was made in Kansas City and relayed to Denver before finally being sent to radio and TV stations in Wichita. By then, it was too late to warn the public. Many people had to ride out the storm in their homes.

In 1955, the science of forecasting tornadoes was only a few years old. Udall's experience made it clear that such forecasting was worthless unless warnings could be quickly and widely passed on to the public. A National Research Council team dispatched to study the tornado and its aftermath said "it is clear that attention must be given to the communication process."

Although Udall sent that message, it took the National 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 in which 270 people were killed. 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.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.