Mental Floss

Not-So-Famous Firsts: Tornado Edition

Kara Kovalchik
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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.

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.

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

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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