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Americans living in the nation’s “Tornado Alley” are hardly strangers to the havoc that even mid-sized tornadoes can suddenly visit on communities. In fact, the recent violent start of the 2014 tornado season, with lethal twisters tearing through Oklahoma and Arkansas, illustrates just how sudden and devastating these storms can be.
Six decades ago, an outbreak of scores of tornadoes across both Oklahoma and Kansas killed more than 100 people, injured hundreds more and destroyed homes and businesses in dozens of counties. On the night of May 25, 1955, a monster F5 twister (in the Fujita Scale’s grim terminology, a tornado capable of “incredible damage”) slammed into the northern Oklahoma town of Blackwell, not far from the Kansas line. Twenty people died and hundreds of homes and businesses were demolished.
In the days following the Blackwell twister, LIFE photographer Joe Scherschel was on the ground there, documenting the devastation and the recovery effort in one small town that had nearly, but not quite, been wiped off the map by a shockingly destructive force that disappeared as quickly as it had erupted.
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.