Struck Twice: America's F5 Tornado Towns

Nick Wiltgen
Published: May 29, 2013

No Warnings, But Kansas Town Survives Twice

Sedgwick 1917

The Danner home near Sedgwick, Kan., was ripped to shreds by an F5 tornado on May 25, 1917. Source: Harvey County Historical Society

The town of Sedgwick, Kan., home to 1,700 people on the banks of the Little Arkansas River just north of Wichita, looks like many a Plains town. There are churches, a bank, a veterinary clinic, a high school, an American Legion hall. There's no obvious sign of its destructive tornado history.

But a century ago, long before television or tornado forecasting, the town was terrorized by two F5 beasts. (Fujita scale rankings prior to the invention of the scale in 1971 are based on historical accounts such as newspaper articles; tornado historian Tom Grazulis has rated known tornadoes of F2 or higher strength as far back as 1880.)

The first clipped the northwest side of town on its way through the farm country of Sedgwick and Harvey Counties, whose border the town straddles, on May 1, 1895. In that era of small family farms, at least 25 families lost theirs to the mile-wide cyclone and a few "entirely vanished." Two families lost four loved ones each.

The second F5 to hit Sedgwick struck on May 25, 1917. It wiped out homes in Andale before moving northeast into Sedgwick, this time taking out the southeast and east sides of town where eight of the tornado's 23 fatalities occurred. In all, 118 farms were struck by this twister, which was one of the first in a major weeklong outbreak that raged across the Plains, Midwest, and Deep South through June 1 of that year. Nearly 400 people were killed nationwide in this siege of storms.

While the Fujita scale didn't exist at the time, in hindsight we can say that Sedgwick, Kan., was the first American town to be hit by F5 tornadoes twice.

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