Thursday marks 64 years since the most destructive and deadliest tornado in Kansas City history


KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Thursday marks 64 years since the worst weather disaster on record for Kansas City.

On the evening of May 20, 1957, a F-5 tornado touched down southwest of Kansas City and traveled a distance of 71 miles, according to the National Weather Service, causing major destruction from where it touched down near Williamsburg, Kansas, and lifted near Knobtown, Missouri. The width of the storm ranged from about 100 to over 700 yards wide.

The tornado claimed the lives of 44 people and left hundreds homeless.

According to the National Weather Service, the Ruskin Heights tornado was one of 35 confirmed tornadoes that impacted areas of Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Missouri on May 20, 1957, including a devastating tornado accompanied by hail 7 inches in diameter that struck Concordia, Kansas.  

The severe watch and warning program in place today from the National Weather Service was not in existence in 1957. 

Hazardous weather forecasts and warnings were issued by district forecast centers, while radar surveillance was performed at local observing sites. 

In 1957, the local weather and radar observation office in Kansas City was located at Kansas City Municipal Airport.

The terms “tornado warning” and “severe thunderstorm” warning did not exist at the time.

There were many square blocks of devastation in Hickman Mills and the Ruskin Heights area, in some places the ground was swept clean, while huge trees were toppled or snapped off. The Hickman Mills Bank near U.S. Highway 71 lost its south wall to the tornado and had to be protected by the National Guard. The Hickman Mills Furniture Company was demolished and the cars on both sides of U.S. Highway 71 were tossed about like toys.

Because of warnings on radio and television, including FOX4, many Ruskin Heights residents were able to take refuge in their basements or with neighbors who had basements.

In its wake, 44 people lost their lives and 531 people were injured. Damage from the tornado was estimated at $2.5 million. 

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