Kansas has never been a stranger to devastating tornadoes. But the March 13,1990 tornado that devastated Hesston was the first F5 the state had seen in 25 years. The last tornado of that strength hit Topeka on June 8, 1966.
Best known for destroying much of the Harvey County town, the tornado began north of Pretty Prairie in Reno County, and hit southwest of Burrton before taking aim on Hesston. It was near Burrton where a six-year-old boy was killed by a chimney that fell into the basement, where he huddled with his family.
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The tornado grew massive as it approached the west side of Hesston, with confirmed wind speeds of 276, the strongest tornado winds ever recorded up to that point. In all, 226 homes and 21 businesses were damaged or destroyed.
The massive tornado hit late afternoon and could be seen from miles away on the flat countryside. Dozens of videos show the tornado as it approached Hesston. Some show with motorists stopped along the side of I-135 near town, watching the churning, black rotation of debris.
KSN crews sent to Harvey County to cover the storms that day started filming on I-135, on the northeast side of Newton. From 10 or more miles away the tornado could be seen clearly.
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Within the city, there are stories of survival. About a dozen people at the local Pizza Hut took cover in the walk-in freezer. That night, the high school was opened as a shelter for those who lost their homes.. About 50 stayed the night.
After leaving Harvey County, the tornado took aim on Marion County, where it merged with another tornado and was also the first time such an event was captured on video. The strengthened tornado would hit near Goessel where an elderly woman was killed.
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After the storm, 85 miles away, near Manhattan, checks were found from a plumbing and heating supply store in Hesston. A personal check was later found in Pottawatomie County, 115 miles away.
Tornado reports from March 13, 1990