One of the weakest tornadoes of 1978 was also its deadliest. It’s an example of how all tornadoes deserve our respect.
On Saturday evening June 17, 1978, forty seven passengers and thirteen crew were on board the Whippoorwill Show Boat on Lake Pomona in Osage County, Kansas. The Whippoorwill featured a popular dinner theatre cruise on the beautiful lake.
A severe thunderstorm watch was in effect when the vessel set sail early that evening. Storm clouds were building in the distance. As the boat cruised the lake, the storms intensified and moved closer. Suddenly, a funnel snaked out from the thundercloud and touched down on the lake, throwing a furious spray up from the surface of the water. Seeing the twister develop, the captain turned his boat to shore began sailing quickly toward the dock.
The tornado or waterspout was small by Kansas standards, only 150 feet wide. During its time on land, it only received an F1 rating. But in an unlikely tragedy, the funnel overtook the boat and capsized it.
People were thrown into the water and some were trapped under the overturned hull. Despite heroic rescue efforts by other boaters on the lake, the final death toll was sixteen. One of the fatalities was the unborn fetus of a pregnant woman.
The Whippoorwill Disaster is one of the most vivid examples showing that ALL tornadoes, no matter how small or short-lived, demand our respect. They all have the potential to cause damage, injuries and fatalities, even when they do not make a direct strike.
While the Whippoorwill Tornado was too small to be detected by the WSR-57 radars of the time, there is little doubt that today’s powerful Doppler radars would have picked up the tornado and there would likely have been a hoard of chaser on the storm reporting its every move. The National Weather Service would almost certainly have had a tornado warning in effect. MyWARN would have been tracking each of those issuances and relaying them hopefully to users in the polygon.
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