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Don Paul: No tornado warnings for Dorothy

Don Paul

“The Wizard of Oz” was released in 1939. The classic movie brought to the screen the most memorable tornado special effect ever created, possibly up to and including “Twister.”

1939 was a bad year for tornadoes. From April 14 to 17 that year, 57 fatalities and 170 injuries occurred from a multi-day outbreak in the southern states, especially Alabama. Tornadoes often struck in the Gulf states in the dead of night fueled by heated Gulf waters, with no warning, or they could be rain-wrapped in the daytime and not be visible to the human eye.

Those threats are still real today, but we frequently receive timely warnings of the approach of a tornado from the National Weather Service forecast offices around the nation. Virtually all dangerous thunderstorms and supercells are tracked by expert meteorologists. Doppler radars can detect rotation within cells and, in fact, are sensitive to the point where the weather service remains dissatisfied by the number of false alarm warnings, which result from erring on the side of caution; storms that appear capable of producing a tornado don’t always do so.

The actual issuance of tornado warnings by what was then called the U.S. Weather Bureau did not come for many years. Actually, the 70-year anniversary of the first tornado warning ever issued just passed, and that warning did not come from the Weather Bureau. In fact, it wasn’t until 1938 that the word “tornado” was even permitted in the dissemination of storm information from the Weather Bureau. It was feared the term might instill panic. It was believed advance forecasting of tornadoes was beyond the realm of meteorological science. More likely than not, it was.

Even in 1948, weather technology was very primitive. There were weather balloons and surface observations, plus measurements taken by aircraft. But there was no satellite imagery until 1960. Weather radar was in its experimental stage, and no network of Weather Bureau or military weather radars existed. Most working meteorologists were military veterans who had received crash-course training during World War II, since there was hardly time to put soldiers and airmen through four-year degree programs. Aviation and surface forecasters were desperately needed in large numbers. Meteorology as a college major was rare and found at only a handful of universities.

It was 1948 when the turning point arrived. On March 20, a tornado struck the Oklahoma City region and produced about $10 million damage at Tinker Air Force Base:

USAF forecaster Captain Robert Miller had been analyzing Weather Bureau surface and upper air charts. The charts failed to indicate the instability of the atmosphere, and a mistaken forecast for dry weather was issued. That evening, thunderstorms to the southwest of Oklahoma City developed. Forecasters at Will Rogers Airport recorded a gust to 92 mph and alerted Tinker AFB with this message: “Tornado South on Ground Moving NE!” With his staff sergeant, Captain Miller sent an alert to base staff minutes before the tornado struck at about 10 p.m.

An immediate inquiry was launched by the military as to the causes of such poor forecasting, with five generals involved. The generals flew from Washington to Tinker and concluded the event could not be forecast and was an “act of God.” Their finding did not stand on good science. Base Commanding Officer Gen. Fred Borum would have none of it and issued orders for Miller and his colleague Maj. Ernest Fawbush to go back, look at the data from the March 20, and come up with some tornado forecasting guidelines: flash science, you might call it.

Miller and Fawbush did so, going back over many tornado events and their preceding conditions and hurriedly drew up a forecasting outline. Borum ordered a safety plan to be issued for base personnel. In this crunch period of three days, a lot was accomplished for a more distant application. But on March 25, similar conditions to those of the 20th developed, and Borum ordered Miller and Fawbush to issue a severe thunderstorm forecast.

The captain and the major were reluctant to do so because their work had been primitive and untested. They followed orders believing the odds of a tornado hitting the same location in five days were very slim. Miller even left for home after his shift, and found out about a tornado strike on the base at 6 p.m. from a radio news report. The reluctant forecasters had succeeded far beyond their expectations. They didn’t issue another tornado forecast for one year, when they successfully predicted an outbreak for faraway southeast Oklahoma – on March 25th, 1949.

Their early successes soon had their USAF forecasts going out to the American Red Cross and the Oklahoma Highway Patrol. The head of the OKC Weather Bureau office, who had been supplying them with data, began accepting their USAF warning information.

Yet the Weather Bureau failed to issue their own tornado warnings until 1952. After a failed and untimely 1st attempt, the next day the Weather Bureau succeeded in advising a seven state region of what was to be a major outbreak. There even had been squabbling between the Weather Bureau and the Air Force, with the Bureau resenting the military warning for military bases but failing to fill the gap for civilians. All the while, civilian tornado fatalities had been on the rise with increased population in tornado-prone regions.

After the Weather Bureau lifted their ban on tornado warnings, the FCC continued their ban on broadcasting such warnings for fear of sowing panic. In 1954, television weather pioneer (and recently departed dear friend to many of us in broadcast meteorology, with whom I shared a few dinner chats at AMS conferences) Harry Volkman took the bull by the horns at WKY in Oklahoma City. The Air Force had issued an urgent warning, and Harry threw aside fears of federal retribution. He issued the warning and received wide praise and many letters for saving lives in central Oklahoma that evening.

On a personal note, Harry was a wonderful man and raconteur. He continued coming to our AMS conferences following retirement in Chicago just to “hang out” with his younger colleagues. He is missed.

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