High death toll for a small tornado…here’s why

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High death toll for a small tornado…here’s why


1978 FILE PHOTO BY PHIL SCHERMEISTER   --  The tornado stricken Whippoorwill steamboat, listing into the waters of Lake Pamona, Kansas.

1978 FILE PHOTO BY PHIL SCHERMEISTER — The tornado stricken Whippoorwill steamboat, listing into the waters of Lake Pamona, KS. The boat, which was overturned by the tornado, was towed to shore and righted by trucks with cables.

This narrative provided by the Topeka, Kansas National Weather Service:

On June 17th 1978, a tornado struck very near the Whippoorwill Showboat on Lake Pomona in Osage county causing it to capsize. This very unusual and unique disaster resulted in 16 deaths and 3 injuries among the 58 passengers and crew aboard. Although the deaths were due to drowning when the vessel overturned, they were attributed to the tornado; making it one of the worst tornado death tolls in Kansas history. Nationwide media coverage was focused on Kansas and this tornado for many days after the tragic event. People who boarded the Whippoorwill for an evening of fun and entertainment, likely never imagined what a historical catastrophe they were in for.

The tornado formed very rapidly around 7pm, cut an erratic but generally eastward path about 8 miles long before dissipating near the small community of Michigan Valley. Witnesses sighted 3 funnels rotating around the main vortex, which itself was no more than about 150 yards wide. Some people reported more than one tornado in the area.

Although damage was also reported to campers, trees and power lines in and near the lake, this tornado should have been relatively insignificant and generally the “norm” in Kansas. The exception occurred when the winds from the tornado capsized the Whippoorwill Showboat causing the 16 deaths. This incident shows that ALL tornadoes, no matter how small or short-lived, demand our respect, and have the potential to cause damage, injuries and fatalities, even when they do not make a direct strike.

Explore the top 10 deadliest U.S. tornadoes and examine tornado myths in ‘Twister Tales’, available on Amazon.

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Steve LaNore
Steve LaNore
Steve LaNore is a Certified Broadcast Meteorologist with decades of experience. His books "Twister Tales" and "Weather Wits and Science Snickers" are available on Amazon. He is the winner of the Texas Associated Press Broadcasters (TAPB) "Best Weathercast" in 2014 / Oklahoma Associated Press Broadcasters "Best Weather Coverage" in 2015, Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters (OAB) "Best Weathercast" 2006, 2008, 2009 / Winner of three awards for "Weather Wits and Science Snickers" in 2013 / LaNore has a heart for weather history, debunking weather myths and making science understandable.

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