KS looks back 50 years

The tornado hit 50 years ago but Clara Lacey still asks in present tense: “What am I going to do?”

BY SUSAN KIM | UDALL, Kansas | June 6, 2005



"That day was strange."

—Clara Lacey


The tornado hit 50 years ago but Clara Lacey still asks in present tense: “What am I going to do?”

It was half a century ago - before warning systems, before TV news crawlers, before Doppler radar. Lacey, then 25 years old and pregnant with her third child, found herself curled protectively over her 4-year-old and 18-month-old boys. Her husband worked nights and was 45 minutes away. She was alone with her children.

When telling her story of survival, she asks more than once: “What am I going to do?

“Well, I put my arms around my boys and curled up on top of them,” she says. “Then things started hitting our house. Then the tornado hit and it completely destroyed our house. The foundation was all we had left.”

Neighbors found Lacey about a block away. She had a fractured skull and serious abrasions all over her body. She spent the next 17 days in the hospital. “I was still with my two little boys. The boys were fine. They had little scratches.”

That September, Lacey gave birth to a healthy baby boy. “All through my pregnancy I wanted a girl but when he was a boy, I was so happy because he was okay. Thank heaven we carried him through the storm.”

On May 25, 1955, when most people were in bed, this tiny town was hit by what meteorologists think was an F5 tornado. In the town of 500, the twister killed 77 people, including 21 children. Some 250 more - including Lacey - were injured.

In a celebration of carrying their town through the storm, Lacey joined about 800 others in front of the community center last week. Many people wore black badges with the simple words: “We Remember.” The badges were also imprinted with 77 crosses, one for each person who died.

People still remember Udall - located in south-central Kansas about 25 miles south of Wichita - as the town that almost died in its sleep.

Now the town has grown to 800 residents, but Lacey and others still remember the day the tornado - at some points three-quarters of a mile wide - struck. “That day was strange,” Lacey remembers. “The breeze would be warm and then it would be cool. It was sultry, a funny day.”

She knew by 10 p.m. the storm was going to be bad. “There was constant lightning,” she says. “I know weather forecasters said it hit about 10:30 p.m., but about 10 minutes before that, our electricity went out.”

Lacey lit a candle and put it in the hallway. “Then hail or debris or both started hitting the house. What am I going to do? The door slammed shut, and I thought the candle would fall and burn down the house.”

Instead the tornado destroyed her house, along with just about every other house and building in Udall, even the water tower.

The tornado led the National Weather Service to create storm-spotter training, and begin working on better ways to warn people about tornadoes. The twister struck before the tornado rating system - the Fujita scale - was created. An F5 tornado is strong enough to rip houses off their foundations. F5 tornadoes make up about 1 percent of all twisters.

Udall created a stone monument in the town park, carved with the names of those who died.

Lacey says her church family at Udall’s United Methodist Church helped her cope with the disaster. “Our church has always been close-knit,” she says. “We had no church at all for quite awhile after the tornado. But we held services in a little country school. I remember the Mennonites came and helped us clean up.”

Disaster responders commended the Kansas town for prevailing, and for being the impetus to better tornado warnings and responses.

Cherri Baer, who has worked in disaster response with groups such as the United Methodist Committee on Relief and Church World Service, lives about 15 miles from Udall. “In a disaster response training we did last week, there was a man in class who had helped clean up way back then,” Baer says.


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