Tornado Watch Issued -- Plus a Special Story About Tornado Forecasts! [Update 6:55pm]

New tornado watch issued...
Valid until 2am CDT.

This National Weather Service tornado watch is in effect until 8pm, however, the western part of the watch has been cancelled. 

Pease remember:
  • Starting around 2 o'clock, begin monitoring the weather for a tornado watch or warning. 
  • Make sure you have at least three ways of receiving a tornado warning. 
  • If a tornado warning is issued, or if the sky looks particularly threatening, please go to the basement and get in a closet (if you have one) or under heavy furniture like a pool table. 
  • If you don't have a basement get into a closet or bath in the middle of the house. 
  • Mobile home residents should go to other shelter. To find your community's public shelter go here
In addition to tornadoes, this same area has an enhanced risk of damaging thunderstorm winds. 

Today is the anniversary of the first modern tornado forecast
That forecast was made at Tinker AFB outside of Oklahoma City. A completely unexpected tornado occurred on March 20, 1948. The commanding officer of Tinker AFB ordered two of his weather officers to see if there was a way to forecast tornadoes in the future. They made a study -- and just five days later -- as a line of thunderstorms approached the base:

General Borum stood up, looked us in the eye and asked the unsettling question, “Are you going to issue a tornado forecast [for Tinker]?” I knew E.J. would come up with a sensible, honest answer and he did.

“Well, Sir, it sure does look like the last one, doesn’t it Bob?”

I tried to think of a brilliant answer and found myself saying, “Yes E.J., it is very similar to last week.”

The General was not particularly impressed with this intelligence: “You two sound like a broken record. If you really believe this situation is very similar to the one last week, it seems logical to issue a tornado forecast.”

We both made abortive efforts at crawling out of such a horrendous decision. We pointed out the infinitesimal possibility of a second tornado striking the same area within twenty years or more, let alone in five days. “Besides,” we said, “no one has ever issued an operational tornado forecast.”

“You are about to set a precedent,” said General Fred S. Borum.

With a sinking feeling in the pits of our stomachs, E.J. composed the historic message and I typed it up and passed it to Base Operations for dissemination. The time was2:50 p.m. The General left, asking to be kept informed of significant developments. We discussed our suddenly impossible predicament. It seemed a hopeless situation, one where we couldn’t win and the General couldn’t lose. Base Personnel were carrying out his detailed Tornado Safety Plan, hangaring aircraft, removing loose objects, diverting incoming air traffic and moving base personnel, including the control tower personnel, to places of relative safety. I could see it now, a sure “bust” and plenty of flack thereafter. I figured General Borum wasn’t about to say, “I made them do it.” More likely it would be, “Major Fawbush and Captain Miller thought it looked a great deal like the 20th—ask them.” I wondered how I would manage as a civilian, perhaps as an elevator operator. It seemed improbable that anyone would employ, as a weather forecaster, an idiot who issued a tornado forecast for a precise location.

The squall line was fully developed by half past three and continued to move steadily toward Oklahoma City. There had been no reports of tornadoes nor any reports of hail and high winds, as yet. We were both very apprehensive and at this point would settle gratefully for a loud thunderstorm with a brilliant lightning display and hopefully a wind gust to 30 or 40 mph with perhaps some small hail. General D. N. Yates, commander of the Air Weather Service would perhaps be more merciful if we could just get a reasonably heavy thunderstorm. Shortly after 5 p.m. the squall line passed through Will Rogers Municipal Airport, but this time they not only didn’t report a tornado, but infinitely worse, a light thunderstorm, wind gusts to 26 mph and pea size hail. That did it, I abandoned ship, leaving a grim Major Fawbush to go down with the vessel.

I drove directly home. E.J. and I both lived in Midwest City, just across the highway on the north side of the base. I related the events of the day to my wife, Beverly, who was reasonably sympathetic, and then sat down to aggravate my depression systematically. A little after six o’clock it began to thunder rather quietly and rain began. There was very little wind. It became quite dark and over the base, portions of the clouds seemed to be boiling while low cloud fragments darted hither and yon beneath the base of the thunderstorm. My view was quickly obscured by heavy rain and I stopped observing the storm. During the evening the radio broadcast we were listening to was interrupted for an urgent news bulletin. I was in another part of the house but caught the words destructive tornado and Tinker Field. “Good grief,” I thought, “they’re still talking about last week’s tornado—but why break into the news.” I tried to call the weather station but the lines were dead. I felt a strange unbelieving excitement rising, told my wife I was going to the station and drove away. The base was a shambles. Poles and powerlines were down and debris was strewn everywhere. Emergency crews were busy trying to restore power, clear the streets and, in particular, to restore the main runway to operational status. I reached the station to find a jubilant Major Fawbush who described the course of events after I had given up hope. At six o’clock thunder began at the base as the squall line moved in from the southwest. E.J. and my friend, the Sergeant, were outside, observing the motion of the clouds. As the line approached the southwest corner of the field, two thunderstorms seemed to join and quickly took on a greenish black hue. They could observe a slow counterclockwise cloud rotation around the point at which the storms merged. Suddenly a large cone shaped cloud bulged down rotating counterclockwise at great speed. At the same time they saw a wing from one of the moth-balled World War II B-29’s float lazily upward toward the visible part of the funnel. A second or two later the wing disintegrated, the funnel shot to the ground and the second large tornado in five days began its devastating journey across the base very close to the track of its predecessor.

It was all over in 3 or 4 minutes. It seemed much longer. The swirling funnel left$6 million dollars in damage, $4 million less than the first storm and significantly, there were no personal injuries. General Borum’s Tornado Disaster Plan had been just as successful as the first operational tornado forecast. We became instant heroes, and in my case, the rest of my life would be intimately associated with tornadoes and severe thunderstorms. General Borum graciously refrained from mentioning the story behind the sensational forecast and he convinced General Yates that we should be allowed to concentrate on further development of our forecast system. The complexity and evolution of the pattern that instigated the sequence of events I have described boggles the mind. This first tornado forecast triggered a chain of events which led to the present day Severe Storms Forecast System and a vast national research program investigating these killer storms. Well, it did look a lot like March 20th. Even the General thought so.

This is one of the stories I tell in Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather. It is on sale at Amazon, just go to the link. 


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