Fifty-Six Years Ago This Evening: The Night That Changed My Life

Unfortunately, the southern Plains has another day of tornadoes and violent thunderstorms ahead. I’ll be posting from time to time about them later today. In the meantime, I hope you’ll allow me a moment to think about how far weather science has come in the last half century.


May 20, 1957, 56-years ago, was also a Monday. I Love Lucy was on television when the announcers started breaking in with news about a tornado headed toward south Kansas City. Within minutes, my Mom and Dad, brothers Mark and Phillip, and I were huddled in the southwest corner of the basement of this small home in south Kansas City.  Forty-four people were killed in that tornado. But, the death toll was lessened by what would turn out to be the first tornado warnings (as we would think of them today) from what was then called the “U.S. Weather Bureau.”

The next day, because we were within the area where marshall law was declared, we could travel freely and my mother took us to see the damage. While the photo below is from Time/Life, it is the exact scene (even down to the high school girders in the background) that my five-year old eyes saw and that I describe in Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather
This was the single most important event of my life: Because of what became known as the Ruskin Heights Tornado, I met my future wife and I also knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life. Anything that could cause all of this damage had to be pretty interesting!

Fast-forward 56 years minus one day. Through the advance of weather science, I am able to confidently say hours in advance (to family and storm chasers), “I think the first tornadic storm will develop near Attica, make a right turn, and track toward Wichita.” At that time, it wasn’t even raining anywhere in the region! 
When the storm developed east of Attica (shown above), three of us were able to drive to the perfect spot in time to watch the tornado form -- while staying safe.  I was able to photograph the storm and write an electronic newspaper (blog) account tens of minutes later.


Double-digit numbers of tornadoes moved across the Midwest over the last 48 hours and there are just two fatalities. While the death of any person is an utter tragedy for their families, the extremely low death toll represents a triumph of science, in this case meteorology. People hardly give a second thought to the hours and hours of hard work of meteorologists on television, the National Weather Service, emergency management, storm spotters, and at private sector weather companies that keep us, and our property, safe. You can scroll down on this blog and see the advance forecasts of yesterday's storms. 

The progress made in meteorology over the last fifty-six years is breathtaking: Tornado warnings, Hurricane Sandy forecasts, blizzard warnings, and the technology to convey the threat. Tornado warnings alone save one thousand to two thousand lives each year in the United States. 

While there is much more progress to be made, 
weather science 
truly has tamed the weather. 

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