For centuries, tornadoes have fascinated humans with their mystery and destructive power. What other word can produce a mixture of fear, awe and admiration? In 1886 United States government banned using the word ‘tornado’ in weather forecasts because it caused wide-spread panic among its citizens.
“The harm done by a tornado prediction would eventually be greater than that which results from the tornado itself.” The ban stayed in place until March 17, 1952 when the first “tornado watch” was issued by the Severe Local Storm Warning Center (now the Storm Prediction Center).
What do we really know about the destructive power of tornadoes? Most experts believe tornadoes are the most violent storms on Earth. It is the randomness at which the tornado strikes that is the most painful. Throughout history, tornadoes have caused widespread death and destruction. They can strike on any continent except Antarctica and at any time of the year as long as the conditions are right.
Before There Were Dinosaurs
Tornadoes have plagued the geologic area known as the United States since before dinosaurs roamed there. Of course no one really knows with 100% certainty that tornadoes occurred during this period but fossil studies indicate that during the Mesozoic Era the Earth’s climate was more stable and tropical than it is today. Since tornadoes require contrasting air masses to form it could mean there were fewer tornadoes. Nonetheless, there is one instance of an event preserved in the fossil records which may have been a tornado. In 1978 A. V. Carozzi and M. S. Gerber reported a region of broken-up sediment in Missouri limestone carbon dated to 325 to 360 million years ago in which the authors say “…the touch-down of a tornado-like system behaving like a funnel is suggested rather than the passage of a storm…”
First Recorded Tornadoes
The oldest written record of a tornado was in July 1643 by Governor John Winthrop of Massachusetts who described “a sort of wind gust”. He goes on to say the wind gust “blew down many trees, filled the air with dust, lifted up a meetinghouse in Newbury, and killed one Indian.” In July of 1680 in Cambridge, Massachusetts Rev. Increase Mather witnessed a terrible whirling wind. Eyewitness Samuel Stone tells that a whirlwind tore through trees, tore off portions of a barn roof and made a singing noise so loud that people could not hear falling objects. Another witness, Matthew Bridge, reported how a continuous circle motion of wind ripped up bushes by the roots, felled old trees and sucked up large rocks.
Oldest Known Photograph of a Tornado
The oldest known photograph of a tornado is dated August 28, 1884 taken about 22 miles southwest of Howard, South Dakota by an unknown photographer. This one photograph inspired legions of storm-chasers. Little was known about tornadoes at that time but that didn’t stop people from engaging in this dangerous activity.
The deadliest tornado occurred on the afternoon of March 18, 1925 when a large tornado ripped across Missouri, Illinois and Indiana. Witnesses reported a huge black wall of debris that hugged the ground for 219 miles. In all 695 people lost their lives and 15,000 homes were destroyed. Without technology there was no way to predict tornadoes and at this time, very few businesses had telephones. This tornado was not only the deadliest it was also holds the record for the longest tornado track. Behind that is the May 6th, 1840 outbreak in Natchez, Mississippi which killed 317 people. However, recently the Dixie outbreak of April 27, 2011 surpassed these totals with a preliminary count of 335 people killed. This total is preliminary and is still being investigated by NOAA.
First Forecasted Tornado
The first documented instance of a successfully forecasted tornado was March 25, 1948 by Meteorologists Air Force Capt. Robert Miller and Major Ernest Fawbush. On March 20th, Capt. Robert Miller was on the evening shift at Tinker Weather Station on Tinker Air Force Base. Noticing nothing unusual about the latest surface maps he reported slight gusty surface winds with a dry and dull night. However, shortly after 9:30 PM a thunderstorm cell moving very fast passed over the base accompanied by a tornado. After an investigation by five General Officers, they recommended the “meteorological community consider efforts to determine a method of alerting the public….and develop safety precautions to minimize personnel and property loss.” For the next three days Capt. Miller and company examined surface and upper-air weather charts to the Tinker tornado and several charts from past tornado outbreaks. They found similarities in weather patterns prior to each storm. Using these results and the research by USWB personnel, they listed several weather parameters to determine tornadic outbreaks. On the morning of March 25th, Capt. Miller noticed similarities to the charts from the 20th and predicted a tornado threat in that area by late afternoon or early evening. Being cautious and not wanting to cause panic, a heavy thunderstorm warning was issued with no mention of a tornado. Finally at 2:50 PM Capt. Miller issued the tornado warning. At 6:00 PM two thunderstorms joined and a tornado formed, tearing across the base. The tornado disaster plan implemented at the base was a success as well as the ability to forecast tornadoes. Capt. Miller and his colleagues became instant heroes. This tornado forecast triggered the events which eventually lead to the Severe Storms Forecast System.
The Biggest Outbreak
The biggest outbreak of tornadoes came during April 3rd and 4th of 1974 when 148 tornadoes touched down in 13 states killing 310 and injuring 5,454 people. This massive super outbreak lasted 16 hours and destroyed property over 2,500 miles. Numerous eye witness accounts of the outbreak began pouring in.
John Burke at the National Weather Service at the airport reported from his office. “The pavements are wet… the traffic is very heavy and slowed down significantly. I don’t see a tornado, but here comes the wind! We’re hitting winds up to … Good gracious sakes alive! There’s 50 right there! By golly, the whole thing’s going! Hear it? I’m going! Goodbye!” Mr. Burke immediately sought shelter.
Dick Gilbert was doing a live radio traffic broadcast from a helicopter, “It’s a spectacular sight… very black low clouds. At the moment they (tornadoes) are over Bowman Field, and it’s swirling around and looks like smoke underneath it. It’s dipping down from the bottom of the cloud! The power transformers have been blowing regularly in the path of this thing – big large explosions of blue-white light.… Another tornado has touched down at a horse barn on the north-south expressway and turned over several cars. And, let’s see… one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight… I would say eight automobiles have been blown across the road or turned over. There’s an ambulance here working in the road. There’s wind damage to the roof of Freedom Hall. I can see three large holes. All of the mobile homes and trailers behind Freedom Hall have been completely torn up. There’s police, fire trucks and ambulance everywhere. So be careful driving in that area. Everything on I-71 is at an absolute complete standstill. Everything on I-64 from downtown to past Big Four bridge and the tunnel is at a standstill.”
John Forsing, Director at the National Weather Service in 1974 recalls the day’s events. “We were expecting a major tornado outbreak and had issued a warning for our local area. Later that afternoon we observed a thunderstorm approaching from the southwest. We did not see a tornado. The top floor of the building offered an unobstructed view of the storm as it passed and observed a funnel cloud forming. Suddenly, an instrument shelter bolted to the rooftop collapsed on its side in front of our window. The tornado circulation reached the roof without a visible funnel. As we sought shelter we crossed the office to look toward the City of Louisville. The tornado was now clearly visible on the ground and racing northeast into the densely populated city. It ripped an I-beam from the rooftop and threw a car into the adjacent parking lot.” Twenty five years later, there are still subtle signs of that tornado outbreak.
Meteorologist at the National Weather Service, Kenneth Haydu says “We want the public to be aware that deadly storms such as the 1974 outbreak can and will happen again, and we want people to be prepared”.