Spring Weather Preparedness: Storms, Floods—and Yes, Tornadoes

stormphotosUntil 1950, United States weathermen were forbidden from using the T-word: tornadoes. Yet, in the early 20th century, tornadoes were everywhere: ripping through southern and Midwest states, shouting in sky-high fonts from the front page of newspapers, and starring in harrowing newsreels.

According to a recent piece in Atlas Obscura, there was one place, however, where you couldn’t find them: in the weather report. From 1887 until 1950, American weather forecasters were forbidden from attempting to predict tornadoes. “During that time,” writes Cara Giaimo, “Roger Edwards of the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center writes, ‘tornadoes were, for most, dark and mysterious menaces of unfathomable power, fast-striking monsters from the sky capable of sudden and unpredictable acts of death and devastation.” As a result, the word “tornado”—discouraged by the Weather Bureau—was replaced by phrases such as “severe local storms.” While this may have kept the public from widespread panic, it most likely wasn’t effective in keeping whole towns safer and more intact when tornadoes swept through.

Now, local health departments and those who rely on this information for their livelihoods—as well as to keep communities safe—are fortunate to have myriad sources of news to stay vigilant and weather-ready. Recently, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released its 2016 U.S. Spring Outlook, which focuses on flood safety (http://www.floodsafety.noaa.gov/). In addition to describing areas at risk for flooding, NOAA offers information to help people and communities prepare and the message: Floods kill an average of 89 people each year in the U.S. The majority of these cases could have been easily prevented by staying informed of flood threats, and following the direction of local emergency management officials.

NOAA encourages individuals to be prepared during NOAA’s Spring Weather Safety Campaign, which offers information on hazardous spring weather—tornadoes, floods, thunderstorm winds, hail, lightning, heat, wildfires, rip currents, and tsunamis—and tips on how to stay safe. To help people and communities prepare, NOAA offers the following flood safety tips:

  • Determine whether your community is in a flood-risk area and continue monitoring local flood conditions at http://water.weather.gov,
  • Learn what actions to take to stay safe before, during and after a flood at noaa.gov,
  • Visit http://www.floodsmart.gov to learn about FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program and for flood preparedness advice to safeguard your family, home and possessions,
  • Purchase a NOAA Weather Radio All-Hazards receiver with battery power option to stay apprised of quickly changing weather information,
  • Study evacuation routes in advance and heed evacuation orders, and
  • Turn Around, Don’t Drown – never cross flooded roads, no matter how well you know the area or how shallow you believe the water to be.

Returning to the 1950s, what changed in tornado forecasting?

The early days of tornado prediction wouldn’t have happened without the Army Signal Office, which first opened up a forecasting office in 1870. John Park Finley, an officer with a deep interest in powerful storms, joined the office in 1877. This story, told in Nancy Mathis’ Storm Warning: The Story of a Killer Tornado, describes Finley’s idea to develop a method of storm prediction in local communities that involved ringing church bells. Eventually, he began including tornado forecasts in his weather reports. This lead to some acceptance of his research, yet Finley was instructed by his superiors to ban the word “tornado” from his broadcasts. The skeptics, including Finley’s new boss, General Adolphus Greely, continued to reinforce the conviction that tornado prediction was foolhardy, frightened the public, and discouraged business in what became known as “Tornado Alley,” a term first used in 1952.

Even when the Signal Office was transferred to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and became the U.S. Weather Bureau, tornado forecasting was prohibited. But the death toll from a rash of tornadoes throughout the 1920s and ’30s began to change hearts and minds, which led to—at least—communication among scientists and emergency personnel. However, after two Air Force meteorologists, Major Ernest J. Fawbush and Captain Robert E. Miller, began to study tornadoes in Alabama, Georgia, and Oklahoma, they developed their own prediction system. Giaimo writes, “In 1948, after correctly predicting several outbreaks among themselves, they finally announced an upcoming doozy—the first tornado forecast in history.” That prediction turned out to be correct, and finally in 1950, the chief of the Weather Bureau reversed the ban mentioning tornadoes in forecasts.

Today, forecasting tornadoes and other extreme weather is still a difficult task. But with technological advances, as well as strides made in emergency preparedness and more rigorous science, the average annual death toll from tornadoes has decreased significantly.

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