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Cool Things - Street Signs from Greensburg Tornado

Stop sign from Greensburg tornado

Greensburg residents found themselves without landmarks or street signs to aid in navigation when a tornado destroyed most of their southwestern Kansas town on May 4, 2007.

Tornado Alley

Kansans are no strangers to severe storms. The state is located in the heart of tornado alley and experiences an average of 55 tornadoes per year. Kansas is one of the top four states in annual tornado sightings, but twisters rarely do major damage. 

Notable exceptions were the Udall and Topeka tornadoes. The town of Udall lost 20 percent of its population when a huge tornado struck without warning on the morning of May 25, 1955. The storm killed 87 and injured about 200 people. Storm prediction methods had greatly improved by June 8, 1966, when a tornado warning was issued for Topeka. Storm spotters dispatched around the area reported a large tornado heading toward the capital city. Even though the storm caused over $100 million in damage, only 16 people were killed due to the advanced warning.

Emergency snow route sign

Forty years later, an extensive storm spotter network and improved radar and weather prediction techniques lessened the human toll of the massive Greensburg tornado. the National Weather Service issued a tornado warning about 20 minutes before the twister struck, saving many lives.  Residents had time to take cover, but businesses, homes, schools and churches were all destroyed in a matter of minutes.  Ten people were killed and countless others injured.  The mile-wide storm leveled 95 percent of the town.

Even metal signs could not withstand the twister's winds of more than 200 miles per hour. These "Stop" and "Emergency Snow Route" signs both were damaged during the storm. Street signs were missing from almost every corner.

First EF5 Tornado

Because tornadoes form quickly and randomly, it is almost impossible to accurately measure the wind speed of a funnel cloud. Instead, tornadic intensity is determined by the damage left behind. Meteorologists have used the Fujita scale to estimate wind speeds since the mid-1970s. The Fujita scale was adjusted in February 2007, becoming known as the Enhanced Fujita scale, and the Greensburg storm became the first EF5 tornado recorded in the United States. A tornado strong enough to receive a rating of 5 had not been seen in the US since 1999 in Oklahoma.

Temporary street sign

Only a handful of buildings remained standing after the Greensburg storm. Enormous piles of rubble lined every street. Without landmarks and street signs, it became very difficult for residents and volunteers to move around the community. Temporary signs were placed at intersections to aid navigation until permanent markers could be erected.

It will take many months and even years for Greensburg to fully recover, but like other Kansas towns devastated by some of nature's most violent and unpredictable storms, its residents are determined to rebuild.

The City of Greensburg donated these signs to the Kansas Museum of History.

 


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Entry: Cool Things - Street Signs from Greensburg Tornado

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: December 2007

Date Modified: December 2014

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.