A Short, Informal History of Tornado Warnings in the USA

A scene from the March 25th, 1948 tornado which devastated Tinker AFB in Oklahoma, USA. The first tornado warning ever issued warned of this particular tornado. (USAF/Wikimedia Commons)
First off, I’d like to apologize for not posting on this blog over the past few months. Believe me when I say that I’ve wanted to post new and interesting stuff since February, but Life gets in the way sometimes. Now that I have more free time, I’ll be sure to start posting here again! Anyway, now that that’s out of the way, time to get started on today’s post…… 

While watching the 1996 blockbuster movie Twister recently, I couldn’t help but notice what is supposed to be a tornado warning from 1969 (which, according to IMDB, might in fact actually be a 1970s-era warning from Tulsa TV station KWTV) airing on the TV in the background while the young Jo Harding (Helen Hunt’s character in the film) and her family were taking shelter from the monster F5 tornado headed straight for their house. This led me to wonder: What were the early TV and radio tornado warnings like here in the USA? How accurate were they? And how far have tornado warnings come over the past few decades?

The first official tornado warning issued in the USA was issued by USAF meteorologists Capt. Robert C. Miller and Maj. Ernest Fawbush on March 25th, 1948, as a massive tornado barreled down on Tinker AFB in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. This warning, which was actually a “tornado forecast” rather than the standard warnings we know today, was issued five days after the second-most destructive tornado in Oklahoma state history hit the base and destroyed a large number of aircraft. During the few day’s interlude between the two tornadoes, USAF investigators determined that weather forecasting at the time was inadequate for predicting tornadoes and most importantly, for saving lives. A new warning system had to be devised and implemented to protect lives of personnel and equipment at the base and most importantly of all, to help protect the general public.

Also during this interlude, Miller and Fawbush analyzed the skies, gathering data from the surface and upper-air to predict whether conditions might be similar to those on March 20th. By March 24th, they had identified a number of factors that could predict possible tornadic activity.

On the morning of March 25th, their observations paid off. All weather conditions were favorable for a possible tornado. Alerts were issued across the base and on the radio about “thunderstorm activity” that day and, thanks to what was at the time state of the art radar monitoring, a squall line of thunderstorms was sighted and base personnel and equipment were moved to bomb shelters. That evening, a tornado touched down on the base and caused a considerable amount of damage. Fortunately there were no deaths reported.

Miller and Fawbush would continue to monitor and predict tornadic activity over the next several years and their guidelines for storm predictions became known as the Lifted Index. The Lifted Index would set the standards for tornado prediction for the next several decades to come. However, the Lifted Index – and the alerts they devised – remained a secret limited to personnel at Tinker AFB. A warning system for the public had yet to be devised, mainly because the Weather Bureau (forerunner to NOAA’s National Weather Service) didn’t want to cause a panic by issuing tornado alerts or ordering Civil Defense to sound the air raid sirens. Needless to say, at that time the technology for storm predictions was still in its infancy.
A radar image showing a tornado-producing supercell on May 6th, 1965. This type of radar image was a typical image from the early days of tornado observation and weather forecasting.

The first public tornado alert – or rather, a “severe weather bulletin” – was issued by the Weather Bureau in Washington, DC on March 21st, 1952. This alert was issued regarding a deadly tornado system which struck several states in the south-central US. Sadly enough, this alert wasn’t widely distributed and 150 people were killed by deadly tornadoes. After this tragedy – as well as the deadly tornado outbreak of 1953 (which remains one of the deadliest on record) , calls for a tornado warning system grew from the public and, eventually from Congress. The FCC ban on broadcast warnings continued until the ban was finally lifted in 1954.

However, issuing an accurate alert would be challenging. The technology we use today just wasn’t in existence or was mature enough to accurately predict severe weather in the early 1950s. At that time, weather data was gathered mainly by releasing weather balloons into the atmosphere that contained radio sensors which reported back to the Weather Bureau information about temperature, atmospheric conditions, humidity, and other basic data. Storm systems were tracked manually using a tracking map with penciled triangles which identified a potentially severe system.

The very first televised warning was issued by WKY-TV’s (now Oklahoma City’s NBC affiliate KFOR) chief meteorologist Harry Volkman, who believed that broadcast warnings desperately needed to be issued over TV and radio to warn the public of severe weather. This warning was an unauthorized rebroadcast of a warning issued by Tinker AFB about a tornado that was headed straight for OKC. After broadcasting the warning (with the blessings of station management), WKY received letters of thanks from people all over the area for giving them a heads-up of the impending tornado and saving their lives. WKY remained at the forefront of storm forecasting in OK throughout the 1950s with their own radar forecasts, which a great deal of TV stations in OK – or anywhere else in the US for that matter – just didn’t have at the time.
An antenna for the WSR-57, the NWS’s first weather surveillance radar.

Throughout the rest of the 1950s and 1960s, the weather radars we know and rely on for predicting tornadic activity began to emerge. Throughout the 1950s, the Weather Bureau began deploying radar systems for detecting severe storms. These radar systems – combined with aircraft observations – could instantly report back any storm systems with the potential for tornadic activity. However, unlike the radars of today which gather detailed information about a weather system, they were World War II-era military radars which only detected a wispy cloud and other basic shapes that indicated a tornado was on the way. They were incapable of reporting detailed information about a storm system like the radars of today.

The 1960s was the decade when the media’s severe weather alert system as we now know it began to take shape. According to sources who worked in broadcasting during the period, TV and radio stations continued to issue simple “tornado alerts” during the early 1960s, but after the Palm Sunday tornado outbreak in 1965, TV stations began issuing tornado watches in addition to warnings which alert when conditions are favorable for tornadic activity. During the ’60s, the evolving radar technology and aerial observations made it possible to give more accurate, up-to-the-minute severe weather alerts. However, the radar images of the 1960s and 1970s were still being mainly gathered by radars located at remote observation stations rather than at the TV and radio stations themselves. The majority of broadcasters had to rely on images and information passed on by these radar stations to relay storm warnings to the public. Satellite images from the TIROS VIII satellite orbiting the earth helped forecasters gain a better idea of how bad a storm system really looked. 
The NSSL’s first research Doppler radar circa 1973.
The ways weather information was relayed to the public – and most importantly of all, tornado research – kept evolving through the 1970s. It was during this decade that TV stations across the US began displaying icon/text alerts about storm watches and warnings during normal TV programming. Also in the ’70s, NOAA started introducing to the public (or at least 44% of the American public) their weather radios which broadcast daily weather forecasts and storm warnings from the newly-rechristened National Weather Service on special weather radio receivers. Beginning in 1973, the Fujita scale developed by Tetsuya Fujita and Allan Pearson could measure the size and strength of a tornado. Most significant of all was the advent of Doppler radar technology in weather forecasting. After the NSSL received its first Doppler radar from the US Air Force in 1969, NOAA gradually began establishing its network of Doppler radars across the US. This gave meteorologists all kinds of new insights on the birth and death of tornadoes as well as the storm systems which spawn them. Of course it also revolutionized weather forecasting for TV and radio meteorologists. This revolution and evolution of radar technology continues to the present day.

The deadliest outbreak of tornadoes in the US is without a doubt the Super Outbreak of April 3-4,1974 , which spawned 148 tornadoes over an 18 hour period across 13 states. These tornadoes killed 319 people and wounded over 5,000. During this outbreak, TV and radio stations such as WHAS in Louisville, KY and Dayton, OH’s WHIO interrupted the day’s normal programming to provide live coverage of these tornadoes and their aftermath, as well as tornado watches and warnings as they were issued by the NWS. Reporters went live in tornado-stricken areas of Kentucky and Ohio showing live reports of the storms’ aftermath. The Super Outbreak demonstrated the power of mass media to provide real-time information and warnings about a weather disaster to the public.

In 1980, a new TV channel emerged on American cable TV that has revolutionized weather forecasting up to the present day: The Weather Channel. Through this TV channel, local weather forecasts could be displayed 24 hours a day and severe weather warnings could be broadcast instantaneously through a national feed. The channel has come a long way over the past 34 years, but it – and the other weather channels that have popped up since then – are still relied upon by millions of American TV viewers for the latest weather information, especially when the weather is just right for tornadic activity. During the 1980s and 1990s, TWC also became a vital source of weather info for another group of people discussed below: Storm chasers.

One relatively new medium of the ’80s that exploded in popularity across the US was satellite TV. SatTV allowed people to receive TV service from space without the shortcomings of over the air (OTA) antenna TV reception or cable TV. It quickly became a Godsend for many people living in extreme rural areas of the US who could not get cable TV service due to geographical limitations and were out of range of traditional OTA broadcasts. Thanks to satellite TV, receiving tornado warnings from nearby TV stations or The Weather Channel started becoming a lot easier for some of these people. 

During the 1990s, weather forecasting started reaching new horizons thanks to a number of different factors. One of these big factors was the advent of the Internet. With the Internet, tornado warnings could be delivered in an instant through websites and e-mail, reaching people who may not have their TVs or radios on. Also with the emergence of the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS) into the Emergency Alert System (EAS) in 1997/98, tornado warnings could now be delivered over electronic devices such as pagers and fax machines.

The 1990s is also the decade when advanced S-band Doppler radars, or Nexrad radars, became the norm for weather broadcasters. Most TV stations started using Nexrad during this time to accurately pinpoint the location of a storm system capable of producing tornadoes and where a tornado might strike, giving viewers advanced warning so they could run for a shelter well in advance. Unlike the older generations of radars, Nexrad radars are also capable of measuring windspeed, precipitation, and atmospheric activity.    

A member of NSSL’s Vortex project filming a possibly tornadic storm in Graham, TX in 1994.

Finally, the 1980s and 1990s were the decades when storm chasing started growing in popularity. Storm chasers have proven decisive in providing meteorologists with on-the-ground data from a tornado touchdown and conditions in a tornado or tornadic storm cell. During the week-long tornado outbreak in Oklahoma in May 1999, storm chasers were active across the state, providing much-needed weather reports to meteorologists and helping them to give timely tornado warnings to the public. The Center for Severe Weather Research’s fleet of radar trucks known as Doppler on Wheels recorded the highest wind speeds ever recorded at that time when a massive F5 tornado touched down at Bridge Creek, OK on the 3rd of May.

The Internet revolution of the ’90s continued through the 2000s and with it the mediums through which weather forecasters issued weather alerts. When social media such as Facebook and Twitter started to explode in popularity, broadcast stations and TV networks were quick to seize the opportunity to reach more viewers and quickly alert anyone who signed up to their Facebook group or Twitter account of any impending storm activity. Likewise, anyone signed up to these groups could post pictures of tornado damage or of the tornadoes themselves.

The power of social media sites was fully demonstrated on May 22nd, 2011 when a super-tornado devastated Joplin, Missouri. Within a matter of hours after the tornado struck, pages such as Joplin Tornado Info and Joplin, MO Tornado Recovery were created that relayed weather info, special statmements from state and disaster officials, and helped pass on information about missing relatives to family members. In the weeks and months after the disaster, these sites and others helped organize efforts to rebuild Joplin and reunited missing pets with their families. At the time of this writing, those Facebook pages are still in existence and are still helping to organize efforts to rebuild what still remains to be rebuilt in the city. Also, they are returning the favors to other communities (esp. in the Joplin/Kansas City area) that have been hit by tornadoes or other weather disasters by passing on severe storm warnings and helping them rebuild after a tornado strikes.    

One group of people who have saved countless lives and helped meteorologists track storms are the volunteer storm spotters of networks such as Skywarn in the US and Canwarn in Canada. These folks have contributed their time and hard work over the past few decades to provide valuable information about weather conditions and anomalies in their particular locations that just might be missed by radar and satellites, such as funnel clouds, lightning strikes, and rotating wall clouds that can produce tornadoes. Much of this information has helped meteorologists issue warning predictions for a particular town or community.

The way meteorologists alert the public has definitely come a long way from the days of the 1950s “tornado alerts” and we now have more ways than ever to stay safe from these deadly vortexes. But what will be the next big breakthrough in weather forecasting and mass communication that will keeps us better informed of tornado watches and warnings? We’ll just have to wait and see.

*Please note that I’m not a meteorology expert. I’m just a blogger with a strong interest in this subject! If you note any mistakes in this blog entry or have any personal memories about this period you’d like to share, please share them with us in the Comment section below. Any reminiscences about weather forecasting or broadcasting in general back in the day would be greatly appreciated!


External Links:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tornado_warning (Wikipedia entry on tornado warnings.)
http://celebrating200years.noaa.gov/magazine/tornado_forecasting/#intro (NOAA’s 200-year anniversary site on the history of tornado forecasting.)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/KFOR-TV (KFOR-TV Wikipedia entry.)

http://www.retrometrookc.org/wky-tv-collection (History of WKY in the 1950s and 60s.)
http://www.nssl.noaa.gov/about/history/ (The history of the National Severe Storms Laboratory from NOAA.)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CkWmNamVS2Q (A rare clip of WHIO’s coverage of the massive tornado which struck Xenia, OH on April 3rd, 1974. Features the late, renowned WHIO meteorologist Gil Whitney. This seems to be one of the few clips available of live tornado warnings or radar coverage from that day. The studio part of this clip is apparently a remake made for a documentary about the Super Outbreak of ’74 some four years later.)
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/31/science/31tornado.html?pagewanted=all (A very interesting article from the New York Times about the history of severe weather prediction from the 1950s up to the Joplin super-tornado of 2011….and how much progress has yet to be made in the area of predicting severe weather.)
http://www.ustornadoes.com/2013/04/03/looking-back-at-the-april-3-4-1974-super-outbreak/ (An interesting discussion about the Super Outbreak of 1974 on the United States Tornadoes website. Includes comments from people who worked in the broadcast and weather forecasting industry at the time.)

(All images are public domain images used courtesy of NOAA and the NOAA Photo Library via Wikimedia Commons unless otherwise specified.)

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