This essay by Mike Smith hits home for me, because it parallels my experience in the midwest in 1974. That was a banner year for tornado outbreaks. The April 3rd and 4th super outbreak was a big influence on me.
The Super Outbreak is the largest tornado outbreak on record for a single 24-hour period. From April 3 to April 4, 1974, there were 148 tornadoes confirmed in 13 US states, along a total combined path length of 2,600 miles (4,160 km).
The Super Outbreak of tornadoes of 3–4 April 1974 remains the most outstanding severe convective weather episode of record in the continental United States. The outbreak far surpassed previous and succeeding events in severity, longevity and extent.
Just 4 years later, I was doing television weather. The lessons of 1974 still influence me today, as with Mike, I wanted to make radar a lifesaving tool. My contribution is this personal doppler radar program.
By Mike Smith, Certified Consulting Meteorologist
Today is the anniversary of a day I will never forget. In Warnings I call it “The Day Television Weather Grew Up.” I was working at WKY TV (now KFOR TV, NBC) in Oklahoma City. There was a massive tornado outbreak in central Oklahoma. For the first time in history, we broadcast a tornado live.
The photo above shows the televised tornado as it was developing over eastern Oklahoma county. But, while dramatic, that wasn’t the most important thing that occurred that day.
Even though we had only primitive black and white radar (photo below shows the tornado as it approached Oklahoma City), we were able to track the storms in real time and get a warning out in advance of every single tornado (13) in our viewing area. At times, four tornadoes were simultaneously on the ground. We focused exclusively on the tornadoes (rather than the additional storms — occurring near the tornadoes — that were only causing large hail), told viewers exactly where they were and exactly where they were headed. That may not seem surprising now, but it had never been done before. Just two months before (April 3), tornadoes swarmed across the Ohio Valley. There are several web sites with radio and TV recordings of that day and it is obvious that, most of the time, the broadcasters didn’t know where the tornadoes were.
As evidence of how revolutionary this was, the TV station received 75 cards and letters telling us, over and over, “You told us a tornado was coming, we took shelter, and our home blew away moments later. Thank you, you saved our lives!” It was overwhelming reading them.
The editorial cartoon was published three days later.The story might have ended there but for two TV news consultants that visited us a week or so later. TV news consultants then, and now, take the “best practices” of TV stations and adapt them to their specific clients. (Ever wonder why there is an “Eyewitness News” in just about every city? Consultants is the answer. They found, years ago, that people liked that name for newscasts.)
They interviewed me about what we did on June 8. They spoke with our news director and news staff. I own a book about TV news, written in 1970, that devotes exactly two paragraphs to TV weather. The consultants’ audience research determined that viewers wanted more and better weather coverage.
From about 1975 to 1980, meteorologists took over from weather “personalities” in most cities. Color radar became a staple of television. Satellite images and time lapse cloud photography made their debuts.
Of course, all of this would have eventually occurred. But, June 8, 1974, was the day TV weather grew up.