The Anniversary of Two Milestone Tornadoes

Today is the anniversary of two milestone tornadoes:
  • 50th anniversary of the Topeka, Kansas, tornado. I believe this was the first major tornado where the (then) new watch/warning system worked perfectly.
  • 42nd anniversary of the June 8, 1974, tornado outbreak in Oklahoma (there was also a terrible tornado in Emporia, Kansas the same day) which was "the day television weather grew up."
Let's begin with Topeka. It was as if the tornado was determined to take the path of worst possible damage. It even damaged the Kansas State Capitol. In today's dollar's, its cost was $1.8 billion dollars. It claimed 17 lives but that was a very low number compared with similar tornadoes before the watch/warning program began. 
The watch had been out for hours. A timely warning let people in Topeka know the tornado was on the way -- with plenty of time to take shelter.

These excellent warnings were accomplished using ex-WWII black and white radars.

Today is also the anniversary of the "Day Television Weather Grew Up" which is a title of a chapter from my book. I'm reposting the blog post I did on the 40th anniversary of what was the biggest tornado outbreak in Oklahoma history:

"Speaking of Warnings (below), at this time 40 years ago, I was gobbling down a quick lunch while I got ready to go back to work at WKY TV and Radio. I had been called in about 3am to cover severe thunderstorms and we were in between storms. I knew the afternoon and evening storms were going to be much worse.

In those days, we had black and white radar. The photo below shows a "hook" echo moving into Oklahoma City, with the tornado about to strike Will Rogers World Airport.
As a result of starting to chase storms two years prior, I knew the storm would pass southeast of the TV station and we had a chance to get a picture of the tornado. Amazingly, we did. Fellow chaser Steve Tegtmeier got this photo of the tornado before it touched down. It was only the second time (the first was KAUZ TV in Wichita Falls in 1959) a tornado had been broadcast live.
To keep track of each of the storms and so I could remember everything that I needed to tell our viewers, we did radar tracings like the one below. I would hold it in my left hand while gesturing to the map with my right. TW = tornado watch from 2 until 8pm and SVR TSTM = severe thunderstorm warnings in effect for several counties.
As you can imagine, the systems we were using were primitive compared to today's. Yet, somehow, we were able to get tornado warnings out for every one of the central Oklahoma tornadoes in our viewing area and there were no fatalities.

In northeast Oklahoma, none of the TV stations had radar or meteorologists (but they did have a popular puppet doing weather!) and there were 16 fatalities.
Tulsa tornado, June 8, 1974, NOAA
Because of the tornadoes and flash floods in the Tulsa area, all of the television stations were knocked off the air. The WKY weather department got a call from the cable company serving Tulsa informing us of their stations' situation and wanted to know if we would cover Tulsa until their stations were back on the air. If so, he would put our signal on their cable. We did. The contrast between our approach and what the Tulsa stations were able to do was striking.

Back in Oklahoma City, the outpouring of appreciation was simply overwhelming. More than seventy letters, an editorial cartoon and countless phone calls from people thanking us for saving their lives.
The business practices of television news then, and now, included a "news consultant" for almost every newsroom. The consultants gather what they believe are "best practices" and try to implant them at each of their client stations. At that time WKY TV (now KFOR TV), used Frank Magid Associates. Soon after, two of their people appeared at the station interviewing the meteorology department (Jim Williams, Larry Brown and myself) about how we did what we did that day.

The tornadoes of June 8, 1974, plus the invention of color radar just two years later, caused a revolution  in TV weather. Very few TV stations had radar prior to 1976; by 1980, just about every station had it. The percentage of genuine meteorologists doing weather on television soared.

There is a chapter about this day in Warnings called "The Day Television Weather Grew Up." I look back at that day and am amazed what we were able to do.

Even today, weather forecasting and storm warnings are still part art as well as science. Meteorologists, whether with AccuWeather, the National Weather Service, or your local television station, work incredibly hard -- often, under great pressure -- when covering tornadoes. They often receive little appreciation for their valuable work which has cut the tornado death rate by more than 95% over the last half-century…an amazing scientific accomplishment."


  1. Hello Mike,

    The Topeka Capital-Journal has a nicely done webpage devoted to the 50th anniversary of the Topeka tornado. Great photos, stories, etc. It even covers the role storm spotters played during the tornado.


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