Vogts remembers Hesston tornado

This is a pciture of the Hesston Tornado from March 13, 1990 (via kansas.com).

This week is Severe Weather Awareness Week, and Saturday is an important day in the history of central-Kansas weather.

On March 13, 1990, an F5 tornado struck the town of Hesston, Kan., which is mere miles from where I grew up south of Canton, Kan.

According to reports, wind speeds were thought to be at more than 300 mph.

At the same time as Hesston was being attacked, a second tornado was traveling a parallel path and struck nearby Goessel.

This second tornado intensified and engulfed the first, making it an even bigger and stronger.

By the end, 68-year-old Ruth Voth was killed when her Goessel home was destroyed, and 6-year-old Lucas Fisher, of Burrton, was also killed when a fireplace and chimney fell into the basement he was seeking shelter in, crushing him to death.

All told, there were five separate tornadoes that touched down on March 13, 1990.

People who lived through the terrifying event won’t ever forget it, and I know exactly how they feel.

I saw the tornado. I was 3 years old, looking forward to my fourth birthday in the coming June. I don’t remember much from this time of my life, but I will never forget that day.

My family and I were heading to Hesston to get supper from the Hesston Pizza Hut since it was closer to our country home south of Canton and north of Goessel was closer to Hesston than McPherson, which was the other nearby Pizza Hut.

We took a country road toward town, and approached Hesston from the east. Up ahead, a huge, dark cloud loomed ahead. Dad, who was driving, put on the brakes. He quickly turned the vehicle around and headed back toward home.

I asked what was going on. I was told that big cloud was a tornado, so we had to get home quickly. I was mad. I just wanted pizza to eat. I didn’t really understand what a tornado was all about at the time, but after we got home and took shelter, the event was imprinted on my mind forever. I later heard stories of people gathering in the Pizza Hut cooler/freezer to stay safe from the twister.

I won’t ever forget it, and this Saturday people need to take a moment and think about the Hesston Tornado. It was a history maker, and just like the Greensburg Tornado, it should never be forgotten.

Though I can’t attribute the Hesston event to my feelings now because I vividly remember going through a time of intense fear of severe weather and tornadoes, I actually enjoy severe weather season. It’s exciting and fun to watch, but I don’t want people to get hurt or property to be damaged. I just like watching the show in the sky. I like to run outside with my camera and try to capture an image of something awesome. After all, I’ve always been told that a true Kansan will hear tornado sirens and head outside instead of to the basement. Doing so isn’t a smart thing at all, but it is what I tend to do.

Now that I’m a member of the Nevada Township and City of Ransom Fire Department, I attended a storm spotter meeting in the Ness County Court House in Ness City on March 3. I got to learn about how to effectively see storms so people can be altered and kept safe. It was very interesting, and the way thing sound, that training might get put to good use this year.

The Wichita Eagle had a report Tuesday saying this year could produce an active tornado season.

Here is what Eagle writer Stan Finger reported:

“I’m quite concerned this could be a very busy tornado season,” said Mike Smith, president of WeatherData Inc., a Wichita subsidiary of AccuWeather.

There are two reasons for those concerns, he said: across the United States it has been wetter than it has been since the Palmer Drought Index was developed more than 40 years ago, and a high pressure dome over British Columbia is redirecting the jet stream right through Tornado Alley.

That’s a combustible combination, Smith said.

“In March and April, we have these weather systems come through that would be tornado-prolific, except they don’t typically have enough moisture to work with,” Smith said. “That’s not going to be a problem this year.”

That set-up brought snow storms every fourth day or so to the Plains, he said.

“That may turn into tornadoes every few days” somewhere in the heartland once temperatures begin to warm up, Smith said.

Yikes. The article also talked about another reason tornadoes might be common this season: the green line, or wheat belt, theory, which was “developed by the Oklahoma Climatological Survey.

Here’s more of what Finger reported on the green line theory:

The theory suggests strong thunderstorms form along a line of moisture created when winter wheat transfers water from the soil to the atmosphere.

“Wheat is very efficient in transferring moisture from the ground into the atmosphere,” Cook said.

Temperatures have stayed stubbornly cool so far this year, delaying the greening of farm vegetation.

But it’s been a wet winter in Texas, Oklahoma and Nebraska, so the wheat belt should emerge from its winter hibernation strongly, said Ken Cook, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Wichita.

That means the “green line” should set up in central Kansas, he said. That happened in 2007, the year of the Greensburg tornado outbreak.

Dry lines — where dry air clashes with warm, moist air — stall next to that moisture at night. When the sun heats up the atmosphere the next day, the dry line encourages instability —which is a vital ingredient for the formation of intense thunderstorms.

Things could definitely get crazy this year, and though I’m looking forward to watching it happen, I just hope no person, animal or thing gets hurt. I hope it is safe tornado season, even if it is active.

But if something does happen, I hope the victims are as resilient as the people of Hesston, who have bounced back quite well, and helped inspire other victims to push through the tragedy, just as the City of Greensburg has done.

This is the path the March 13, 1990, tornado took. My boyhood home is not many miles north of the path in McPherson County near the Marion County and Harvey County lines. (photo via The Newton Amateur Radio Club at newtonarc.net)

Want to read more about the Hesston Tornado? If so, here are a few articles about it I found most informative, interesting and helpful in writing this post:

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About toddvogts 794 Articles
My name is Todd Vogts. I am an assistant professor of media. I like the color green, riding my motorcycle, and being with my family and friends. A good book is a perfect companion for me any time, and I'm a published author and journalist. Visit my website at www.toddvogts.com and follow me on Twitter at www.twitter.com/toddvogts.


  1. My Cousin was working in the Pizza Hut in Hesston when the tornado hit. He said the exact same things you are saying….something he will never forget.

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