Today marks the anniversary of one of the most amazing but, also, most frightening and deadly natural events in North American history — the Super Outbreak of April 3-4, 1974. In the span of less than 24 hours, a record-breaking 148 tornadoes struck the eastern portion of the United States and the often neglected 149th overall touched down in Windsor, Ontario and was one of the worst twisters to ever hit Canada. This event also holds another stunning record that has never been approached since — six tornadoes that hit a rating of F5 on the old Fujita scale.
For those reading this that are younger than me, it will be difficult to imagine what this day was like…not only due to the immensity of the event, but because most folks born after 1972 or so have no knowledge of the days when warnings were made by hand, sent over teletype machines, and made based upon 1940’s-era radar better suited for looking at solid objects rather than clouds and rain. Even though the official ban on the use of the word “tornado” in National Weather Service (NWS) bulletins had finally been lifted years earlier, there was still a great hesitance to use it in days when they had to be absolutely verified by a storm spotter.
The often-neglected NWS was just as frustrated and confused as anybody else on this day of spectacular and deadly storms. In one example, Chief Meteorologist John Burke of the Louisville NWS office slammed his grease pencil down on the desk and angrily wondered aloud what good they were doing anybody when they could not warn the public of the many storms happening in his area due to their ancient equipment and poor communications (Burke is more famous for being the man that had to abruptly hang up on Louisville’s WHAS-AM during a live interview as he saw what would become the city’s F4-rated tornado form outside his window — this can be heard at the April 3, 1974 website where there is much more great material posted about the event).
In another stark example, with storms all around, having no idea which ones were producing tornadoes, and teletype communications jammed due to them being used simultaneously in (eventually) 14 states, the NWS office in Indianapolis made their call in an opposite direction. They simply placed the entire State of Indiana under a tornado warning.
When it was all over, 315 to 330 people were dead and the damage adjusted for inflation would total 3.5 to 4 billion today’s dollars. Yet, as with many such events, much good came out of it.
The Super Outbreak directly brought about a much quicker introduction of Doppler radar and, later, the more powerful NEXRAD system. Now, meteorologists could see wind patterns in the clouds and be able to determine if any had twisting winds where a tornado might be imminent or already on the ground and missed by spotters.
The Super Outbreak allowed Dr. Ted Fujita to prove many of his long-held theories of tornado behavior. Perhaps even better was it helped him and others disprove the many myths about tornadoes the safety precautions parroted by the media.
The Super Outbreak made many counties, cities, and towns outside of the traditional definition of “Tornado Alley” realize they needed better facilities and equipment to deal with severe storms both before and after they occurred. Many governments made major revisions in their disaster preparedness plans and installed warning sirens.
The Super Outbreak also took a giant step in overcoming the attitude of “It can’t happen here,” although the United States still has a long way to go on that front even after the widely-seen footage of the 1999 Salt Lake City tornado.
On that final point, I often think about a story I told here in 2005 or 2006 on the old version of this website. A small wintertime outbreak of tornadoes hit central Florida in the middle of the night. Several people were killed. A reporter interviewed an elderly couple that lived in a trailer park. Their home was destroyed but they managed to get to the storm shelter before the twister hit. When asked about how they managed this, they said that their NOAA Weather Radio sounded its siren and woke them up.
It still amazes me that many people even in the heart of Tornado Alley will not spend the $25 to $50 to buy a NOAA Weather Radio with SAME technology (Specific Area Message Encoding, the thing that tells the radio whether or not it needs to sound its warning). I’m not a believer in Heaven, but I still imagine what it would be like to watch some guy walk up to the Pearly Gates with a two-by-four sticking through his head and trying to explain to Saint Peter why he spent a lifetime buying fancy cell phones, $125 pairs of sneakers, and all kinds of other frills but never used the common sense the Good Lord gave to him to spend such a paltry sum on a device that would have saved him from God’s windy wrath.
And, heaven forbid he was one of those people that always complained to his local television stations when they interrupted regular programming to broadcast weather warnings (to which many local stations have sadly caved in and only interrupt programming if something big threatens the heart of the city or a rich neighborhood).
But, Saint Peter, I was really looking forward to seeing that episode of American Idol!
Go to Hell! >:-)
Speaking of Hell, I unfortunately cannot talk about this anniversary and its modern legacy without bringing up politics. How far we have fallen in the USA when even the weather has become political.
My politics do mostly (but not completely) lean “left” but I am also not a selfish idiot or inconsiderate of the hard work of others. In this time when, right or wrong, the federal budget deficit has ballooned to an almost incomprehensible amount, I am a strong believer that all government agencies and departments need to take cuts to do their part in helping to get this country’s finances back in line and generally streamline a system that has become bloated, inefficient, and out of touch with reality.
However, in a move that might be the greatest example ever of the old phrase, “cutting off your nose to spite your face,” the Republican-led House of Representatives passed their version of this year’s remaining budget that calls for a 28% cut in NWS funding. It is a purely political move as the NWS does occasionally study climate science…you know, global warming, climate change, and all of those other things GOP legislators are determined to not believe in no matter how much evidence comes in or how completely “Climategate” was shown to be a farce. In addition, the GOP is paid very handsomely to maintain this position by all of the corporations that want to avoid their patriotic duty to do their part to support this country’s general welfare (all fueled by Wall Street’s hunger for better stock performance and damn anything or anybody that gets in the way of higher profits).
It is yet another example of the so-called Tea Party crowd trying to take over the ship with no idea how to steer it or what the consequences will be when they try to navigate it through shallow waters. Their “slash all government and leave me alone” cries just might go silent in certain places due to their own actions if they get their way.
The problem with slashing the NWS budget so dramatically is two-fold. For one, it will not stop discussion over whether or not climate change exists and if humans have a hand in it. That will go on with or without government money.
That might be fine, but the remainder of these punitive cuts are going to hit many of the Tea Party crowd right where they live — literally. It is quite ironic that many of the states that need the NWS the most are also the most heavy supporters of Republican politicians. Also remember…their local television stations won’t be able to pick up the slack as they all get most of their information from the NWS even if they have their own Super Mega VIPIR Doppler 3000 Storm Tracker XL Rainbow Radar (this also includes all of the “alternative” weather services including Weather.com/Intellicast, Weather Underground, and even the Fox News-like AccuWeather).
Here are two examples of how this Tea Party-inspired cut actually screws the very people they claim to represent.
These days, the NWS can often begin warning a section of the country up to three days ahead if it is to be affected by significant weather such as severe thunderstorms, heavy snow, or a hurricane. With these budget cuts, most NWS offices might have to cut weather balloon releases from twice a day to once every other day. This will significantly impact their ability to make long-term forecasts as accurately as they do now. Less warning time means that fewer people will hear or heed them.
In an example that would hit people more immediately, these budget cuts would probably result in the closure of 12 NWS offices and the elimination of all their employees. This leaves the remaining offices taking these areas over — offices that are already understaffed and under-budgeted — to fill in the slack. If an outbreak of storms occurs, this could easily result in a delayed or completely missed warning that will end up killing people when such a thing could have been prevented.
Could the NWS trim some fat? I’m almost 100% certain of it. Should its administrators and employees be required to take a pay cut and a reduction in benefits? Definitely. Could we even at least temporarily de-fund any NWS research on climate change because some people just won’t accept it? Yeah, I would make that deal, but only if we didn’t touch forecasting and the tools needed for its proper implementation (plus assure that all government agencies also bear similar reductions).
Making drastic cuts in the name of punishing the NWS for believing in global warming or to help reach that $100 billion in budget cuts number that the GOP pulled out of its ass because everybody likes the sound of a big, round number is absolute lunacy for both individuals and small businesses alike. On the latter, many businesses relay on knowing about coming bas weather so they can protect their investments. Getting a forecast that costs mere pennies a day in taxes is invaluable to them. On the former…well, it doesn’t take long to again see the hypocricy about how the Tea Party types and conservatives in general say they care so much about the “right to life” but never fail to miss an opportunity to actually do something about it any time after a human leaves its mother’s womb.
Then again, it shows the whole overall irony and hypocrisy of the Tea Party movement.
The original Tea Party was actually more about having a monopoly handed to a big corporation, the British East India Company, than it was about the level of government taxation.
The Tea Party wants to end government “interference” on Wall Street, but it was the financiers that caused The Great Recession.
The Tea Party claims to be a grassroots movement, but its funding is mostly coming from big corporations.
The Tea Party doesn’t want there to be anymore government handouts, but still wants its Medicare.
The Tea Party wants to bring manufacturing jobs back to the country, but keeps shopping at Wal-Mart where almost nothing of significance is stamped with “Made in the USA.”
Now, the Tea Party wants to keep a strong military to fight wars abroad but wants to gut one of the main government agencies that protects the country within its own borders.
It’s Bizarro World at its finest. It would be funny if it were not going to end up being so tragic until this movement finally peters out (which will be as much to the joy of many conservative-minded people I know as it will progressives).
As another old saying goes, you reap what you sow. The wise portion of the Democratic crowd realize this from years of overspending, overreaching, and not being respectful of those in this country with different views (especially on religion). The tea-tinged portion of the Republicans will also feel this wrath if they get their way. As sure as the sun rises in the east, there will come another day when cuts screamed for by Tea Party types will come back to haunt them (as if GOP cuts in agencies like the Securities and Exchange Commission didn’t screw us all already). These poor and often intentionally misguided souls will soon find out that certain things are too big to handle as individuals or within a local government. Whether or not it is a tornado outbreak or something else, only time will tell. However, it will happen…and, while I will mourn for those that will have been too young or feeble to escape whatever disaster comes, I will be laughing my ass off as the people that keep putting the Tea Party style of Republicans in office suddenly start complaining about how the government didn’t protect or warn them and, perhaps better still, the insurance companies are allowed to not pay them for damages as they will be able to do as they please in the unfettered “free market” created by the Teabaggers — a false utopia that is as unattainable and foolish to pursue as anything ever cooked up by the left.
And it seems that closing this with yet another old saying is appropriate…
Be careful what you wish for, Teabaggers and Fox News Channel watchers…because you just might get it.