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The Udall tornado: Kansas town remembers the day it disappeared (PHOTOS)

Damage caused by the tornado that struck Udall in 1955.
Damage caused by the tornado that struck Udall in 1955. Courtesy of Udall Historical Museum

There aren’t many people left who crawled out of the rubble the night this small town died more than half a century ago.

For those who remain, however, certain memories will never fade.

Beth Evans still gets goosebumps when she thinks about how her father had come across the street from the pool hall to the community center just before a mammoth tornado slammed into the unsuspecting Cowley County town at 10:38 p.m. on May 25, 1955.

The dozen or so people in the cinder-block community center heard the deafening roar soon enough to cower in a corner bathroom. They all survived.

But no one in the pool hall across the street lived. They were among 77 people killed in the deadliest tornado in Kansas history, a total that amounted to about a quarter of Udall’s population.

Most of the people who call Udall home now weren’t alive when the tornado struck 60 years ago. They have no memory of what – or who – was lost that night.

“There are two Udalls,” Evans said. “The one before the tornado and the one after.”

For many, the tornado’s victims are little more than names on a stone memorial in the small, tidy city park on the edge of town. A service marking the 60th anniversary on Monday will connect faces to those names. Photos of victims will be displayed. As each name is read, a relative will stand.

While more than half a century has passed since the sleepy farm town of large homes with wrap-around porches along tree-canopied streets was obliterated, officials say it’s important for that painful night to be remembered.

“Even after 60 years, you just can’t say it’s not relevant anymore,” Mayor Steve Brown said. “The whole signature of the town was changed, the landscape.”

“We have to remain mindful of that moment in history,” said Brown, whose eventual mother-in-law graduated from Udall High two days before the tornado. “That was a game changer for everybody.

“I think any time you lose sight of an historical event, you lose sight of your roots, of what’s come before you.”

Charlie Rollins was the first photographer to arrive in Udall on the night of May 25, 1955. His iconic photos from that night were published around the world.

A deep rumble

No recognition of where Udall is today – and where it wants to go from here – can be complete without an understanding of the nightmare it endured six decades ago.

A tornado watch had been in place throughout the evening, and a new one had been issued – but the bulletin for the new watch didn’t reach local broadcast media before their 10 p.m. newscasts. As a result, many residents of Udall went to bed thinking the threat for severe weather had passed.

When a deep rumble approached the town shortly after 10:30 p.m., some thought it was a late-night train. Others, who had sensed danger much of the day, headed to their storm shelters – or “storm caves,” as the locals liked to call them.

About three-quarters of a mile wide, with winds estimated at more than 260 miles an hour, the tornado left just one house undamaged.

The tornado tore the top floors off the brick buildings that were the heart of downtown and toppled the water tower on the north end of Main. The brick school that had been built just two years earlier was ripped apart.

When Clara Lacey, who was five months pregnant, heard debris and hail hitting her house, she walked into the bedroom of her two young sons, picked Rock up from his baby bed and placed the toddler beside his 4-year-old brother, Rick, on the lower mattress of a bunk bed set. Then she laid down between them and wrapped her arms around them.

She and the boys were found together a block from where their house had been. Rick had a small cut on his head.

Lacey said she “was beat from head to toe” by flying debris. She suffered a skull fracture that kept her hospitalized for nearly three weeks, then went to live with her parents in another county.

“By the time I came back it was all gone. It was cleared,” Lacey said. “You couldn’t tell where any of the landmarks were – they were all gone.”

That September, she gave birth to a healthy boy they named Ron – but whom the nurses nicknamed “Tornado Pete.”

‘The old Udall’

The Laceys built a new house on the old foundation, but not before building a storm cellar.

A water tower was among the first construction projects completed in the new Udall. People who had carried insurance rebuilt their homes. People who didn’t relied on donations from strangers and help from the Red Cross and other organizations.

In an era before government-issued portable trailers, the Red Cross built several small two-bedroom, one-bathroom houses in Udall. Mennonite Disaster Service volunteers came to Udall and dug graves and helped with clean-up.

“They did the dirty jobs and never complained,” said Carroll Shivers, whose father helped the Mennonites dig graves.

They also gave every survivor a towel, soap, toothpaste and a washrag with a safety pin attached.

“You don’t know how neat a safety pin can be when you don’t have much,” Evans said.

The Evans house lost its electricity but was otherwise spared damage by the tornado. Beth Evans lost all of her shoes the night of the tornado, and her family didn’t return home until electricity had been restored.

Udall students weren’t moved to a new location to have classes that fall. The new school was built around them.

“They’d come in and say, ‘We need to move you guys,’ ” Shivers said. “We’d take our chair and our books and go down the hall to wherever they’d have us next.”

The sights and noises of a new building going up around them were an integral part of the next school year’s soundtrack. But it was the absence of another sound – birds chirping – that has lingered with survivors.

With no mature trees left, there were no birds in Udall for many years. Lulita Hopkins remembers a photograph of her older brother holding her when she was little, taken in Udall shortly after the tornado.

There were no houses in the background, no trees – nothing.

“It was like he was standing in a field,” Hopkins said.

One of the milestones in Udall’s recovery, Evans said, was when she could hear birds chirping in town again.

Rebuilding identity

Udall represented the nightmare scenario for Tornado Alley forecasters: a large tornado tearing through an unsuspecting town after dark.

Another small Kansas town was virtually erased by a massive tornado after sunset more than a half-century later. The timing, northerly track and size of the Greensburg tornado so closely mirrored the Udall tornado that Chance Hayes, warning coordination meteorologist for the Wichita branch of the National Weather Service, called the similarities “jaw-dropping.”

But there was one dramatic difference between the Udall and Greensburg tornadoes: The 1955 tornado killed 77 people in Udall. The 2007 tornado killed 11 in Greensburg.

Weather officials credit advancements in radar, the storm spotter network established after the Udall tornado and better communication systems for the lower death toll in Greensburg.

“It gave us the heads-up that Udall didn’t have,” Greensburg Mayor Bob Dixson said.

In the aftermath of the Greensburg tornado, Udall residents went to the central Kansas town and helped with clean-up and recovery. They also sent trees because they understood in a way few others can what Greensburg residents faced.

As devastating as the tornadoes were that struck Joplin in 2011 or Andover in 1991, said Brown, the Udall mayor, they only damaged part of those cities.

“When your whole town is leveled like Greensburg or Udall, that takes away the signature of your town,” Brown said. “It almost takes away the whole identity of your town.

“Not only do the buildings need to be rebuilt, but the identity needs to be rebuilt.”

Udall looks forward

It’s been less than a decade since Greensburg was decimated, but the town has rebuilt its school and hospital. There’s a grocery store and museum and just a few weeks ago, a new movie theater opened. Later this summer, a new swimming pool will open.

“They’ve done miraculously,” Barbara Adams told the Wednesday morning regulars who meet to solve the world’s problems at the Cenex convenience store in Udall earlier this month. “It sort of upset me that we haven’t come that far.”

But Udall is making progress of its own.

Voters recently approved new facilities for the school – the third expansion since the tornado, Evans said. The City Council is working on an urban renewal plan that numbers among its goals building new, large homes in town.

Of the Red Cross house built in the tornado’s aftermath, Brown said: “They served a purpose. They don’t serve their purpose any more. We need to focus on alleviating that problem.”

Houses that small won’t attract families to town.

“We don’t have the nice, big houses,” Evans said. “We just have the little houses.

“That’s what I miss when I go to other towns is the nice, big, older homes.”

The coming demolition of four downtown buildings that were salvaged after the tornado is bittersweet as well. Mold and decay have made their removal necessary, Brown said.

“We do have a council that’s willing to start rebuilding Udall,” Brown said. “We’re renewing – and we have to anyway. We can’t just sit stagnant and expect the world to come to us. We have to ask the world to come to us.”

“We can’t afford to be left behind,” he said. “We don’t want to just be that little town that got wiped out by a tornado.”

At the same time, he said, Udall isn’t going to let that memorial in the city park become overgrown with weeds. The photographs and mementos linked to May 25, 1955, will always be a cornerstone of the town’s museum, too.

“Future generations,” Brown said, “need to know what happened here.”

Reach Stan Finger at 316-268-6437 or sfinger@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @StanFinger.

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