Not-So-Famous Firsts: Tornado Edition

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It is believed that a journal entry made by Massachusetts Bay Colony governor John Winthrop on July 5, 1643, is the first recorded sighting of a tornado in what would become the United States. Winthrop was something of a weather geek and had begun keeping a daily diary of atmospheric conditions while aboard the Arabella en route to the New World in 1630. Winthrop’s report that July day read:

"There arose a sudden gust at N.W. so violent for half an hour as it blew down multitudes of trees. It lifted up their meeting house at Newbury, the people being in it. It darkened the air with dust, yet through God's great mercy it did no hurt, but only killed one Indian with the fall of a tree. It was straight between Linne [Lynn] and Hampton."

Winthrop didn’t mention a funnel-shaped cloud or a whirlwind (of course, he also stated that no one was hurt except for the Native American that was killed, so maybe descriptive prose wasn’t his forte). Nevertheless, most historians agree that the traveling, destructive wind Winthrop had witnessed was, in fact, a tornado.

The First Forecast

It seems unbelievable today, but as recently as 1940 Americans were dangerously ignorant of any approaching funnel clouds.

In fact, the word “tornado” was not even allowed to be mentioned in any weather broadcasts. That’s because the U.S. government, in all its wisdom, believed that merely uttering the word over the airwaves would set off a widespread panic. Of course, part of the problem was that the Weather Bureau (precursor to the National Weather Service) just didn’t have the technology necessary to accurately predict when a thunderstorm might turn deadly.

It wasn’t until 1942 that the Navy gave the Weather Bureau 25 surplus aircraft radars, which were then modified for ground meteorological use. On the evening of March 20, 1948, meteorologists Maj. Ernest J. Fawbush and Capt. Robert C. Miller were on duty at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, when they issued a base-wide report of 35 mph gusting winds without thunderstorms. At 9:00PM weather stations 20 miles southwest of their location reported lightning, and at 9:30 those same stations were pummeled by thunderstorms. By the time the Tinker AN-PQ-13 radar picked up the storm cells, a tornado had touched down at nearby Will Rogers Airport and quickly made its way to the base where it ultimately caused $10 million in damage. The financial fiasco prompted the Commanding General to “urge” his meteorological team to find a way to better predict such disastrous storms.

Fawbush and Miller spent the next 72 hours poring over surface and upper-air weather charts and compared them to charts from previous tornadic outbreaks. They found some definite similarities in weather patterns preceding each storm and, more importantly, on March 25, just five days after that twister had touched down on the base, they noted the same patterns on that morning’s weather charts. The two were most reluctant to issue an official warning since such a prediction had never before been broadcast, and besides, what were the odds of a tornado striking in the same place twice within a week?

Finally, with a feeling of dread, they sent out a carefully worded teletype warning of the possible impending storm. Although skeptical of the advisory, base officials diverted incoming aircraft, picked up loose objects and moved personnel to safe locations. Much to everyone’s surprise, a tornado did in fact touch down at Tinker Air Force Base shortly after 6:00PM that evening, causing $6 million in damage but no injuries. No one before had accurately predicted the likelihood of a tornado, much less early enough to warn local residents, and Fawbush and Miller became instant heroes in the meteorological community.

Hold It, Flash, Bang, Wallop!

The first tornado ever photographed touched ground in what is now South Dakota on August 28, 1884, and unbelievably – considering the cumbersome cameras of the day – not one but two shutterbugs were on the scene.

Several storm systems converged over the southeastern corner of the Dakota Territory that fateful day, resulting in at least four very strong tornadoes that resulted in six deaths and extensive property damage. Photographer J.C. Judkin captured a tintype image of one twister that struck near the city of Huron around 3:00PM, but the picture was ultimately lost by the folks Judkin had entrusted it to for engraving. Meanwhile, in nearby Howard City another camera buff named F.N. Robinson set up his equipment in the middle of a street intersection with the help of an assistant. According to Signal Corps weather observers the Howard twister was visible for an extended period of time on the horizon as it approached the city, which is probably why Robinson was able to snap three exposures of it. The clouds above the funnel in the one surviving photograph were retouched when it was originally developed, as was the standard practice at the time. (Image: F.N. Robinson photo 8/24/1884, Howard City, Dakota Territory)

We Interrupt This Program…

Only a few weeks after signing on as WKY-TV’s weatherman, Harry Volkman made broadcast history. The Oklahoma City station was near enough to Tinker Field that they could pick up weather alerts issued to personnel at the Air Force Base. On the afternoon of March 21, 1952, station manager P.A. “Buddy” Sugg learned that a “tornado risk” for central Oklahoma had been announced by meteorologists at the Base and he instructed Volkman to relay the information on the air. Volkman hesitated, worried that he could very well be arrested (since the word “tornado” was still officially verboten by the FCC), but Sugg told him, “They’d arrest me, not you; you’re just following my orders.”

Harry Volkman informed viewers of the impending storm, using the word “tornado” during a weather broadcast for the first time and probably saving some lives in the process, as that particular storm system ended up being the ninth deadliest tornado outbreak in U.S. history.

Choosing Words Carefully

April 11, 1965, was an unseasonably warm spring day (temperatures in the upper 80s) that had followed an unusually short winter in the Midwest. It was also Palm Sunday, which meant a lot of people were attending church services and weren’t near a radio or television. Those who were at home watching TV received conflicting messages from their local weather bulletins—some stations posted a “tornado alert” while others called the approaching storm system a “tornado forecast.” All of these factors added up to a string of 47 tornadoes that struck in less than 12 hours, killing a combined 271 people in Iowa, Indiana, Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio and Michigan.

A meeting was held after the disaster at the WMT studios in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, with officials from the Kansas City Severe Storms Forecast Center and WMT meteorologist Conrad Johnson and news director Grant Price. Together they came up with a proposed nation-wide terminology when it came to twisters: a “watch” indicated that the weather conditions were such that a tornado might form, and a “warning” meant that a funnel cloud had definitely been spotted. The National Weather Service formally adopted the criteria recommended by the team later that year and went to work educating the public on the difference between a tornado watch and a tornado warning.

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June 2, 2011 - 10:11am
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