NOAA 99-26
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Bob Chartuk, Mary Jo Parker
3/31/99

WEATHER SERVICE COMMEMORATES NATION'S WORST TORNADO OUTBREAK

History and technology converged today in Xenia, Ohio—ground zero for the nation's worst tornado outbreak—as National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials joined the community in remembering when 148 twisters struck their state and a dozen others on April 3-4, 1974.

Twenty-five years ago, National Weather Service forecasters could see only green blobs on their radar scopes and relied on visual confirmation to issue tornado warnings. Today's forecasters, thanks to a $4.5 billion weather service modernization effort, view evolving storms in graphic detail and issue warnings, often before tornadoes even form.

"Deadly storms such as the 1974 super outbreak can and will happen again," said Ken Haydu, meteorologist in charge of the weather service's forecast office in Wilmington, Ohio, and host of the public program in Xenia. "On average, across the country, the National Weather Service has doubled its warning lead times for tornadoes. But these warnings mean nothing if people don't receive them or don't take appropriate action after receiving them," Haydu said.

"The people who experienced the super outbreak have an important story about tornado awareness and preparedness to pass on to later generations," the meteorologist continued, "and today's forecasters have an equally important story to tell about the advanced capabilities they now have at their fingertips to warn the public of severe weather."

During the 1974 outbreak, tornadoes caused a damage path of more than 2,500 miles leaving 330 dead and 5,484 injured. In less than 24 hours, twisters ran the gamut from 0 to 5 on the Fujita Scale with some tornadoes traveling more than 100 miles. One twister was five miles wide and at one point, 15 tornadoes were on the ground at the same time. One twister even crossed over into Canada from Michigan and back again.

In all, 13 states were struck by twisters: Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.

Tornado eyewitnesses and weather service forecasters-whose efforts to warn the public saved lives--shared their experiences in Xenia. John Forsing, director of the National Weather Service's Eastern Region, worked the storm as a forecaster at the NWS office in Louisville, Ky.

"The top floor of the terminal building offered an unobstructed view of the storm," Forsing recounted. "As the lowered cloud base moved overhead, we first observed the funnel cloud forming and were able to even see small scale circulations within the descending vortex. Suddenly, an instrument shelter, which was bolted to a rooftop deck, collapsed on its side in front of our window. An I-beam, ripped from the rooftop and thrown onto a car in the adjacent parking lot, marked the beginning of a trail of damage affecting 900 homes and causing millions of dollars of property loss in the Louisville area."

Forsing contrasted the technology of 1974 with the modernized forecast offices of the 1990s. "What we saw as a green blob on a World War Two-vintage radar scope is now depicted in full color and high resolution detail," the meteorologist said. "With modernized technology such as Doppler radar, weather satellites, and advanced computers, forecasters can now pinpoint tornadoes even before they touch down," said Forsing, who helped oversee the weather service's nationwide modernization effort.

Another speaker at the Xenia event was Joseph Schaefer, Director of the NWS Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., which is responsible for monitoring tornadoes nationwide. "Since 1974, we have increased the accuracy of severe thunderstorm and tornado watches we issue for the entire country," Schaefer said. "Today, more than 95 percent of the watches we issue subsequently contain severe thunderstorms, compared to about 66 percent in 1974. Even more importantly, the percent of F2 or greater tornadoes that occur in areas under tornado watches has doubled in 25 years, leaping from about 40 percent to 80 percent," he said.

Richard Augulis, director of the National Weather Service's Central Region, noted that the 1974 tornadoes helped fund the expansion of the NOAA Weather Radio network from about 50 transmitters to 330 with a goal of reaching 70 percent of the populace with storm warning broadcasts. In 1994, an initiative by Vice President Gore raised the coverage goal to 95 percent.

"Weather radios that sound an alarm when severe weather threatens are the public's first line of defense," Augulis said. "And certainly, the weather service's modernized capabilities in issuing timely and accurate warnings are a critical part of this defense."

Local and state emergency managers and officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency also marked the super outbreak anniversary along with Xenia Police Chief Eric Prindle and Fire Chief Dave Price. Xenia Mayor John Saraga detailed the city's tornado response plan.

The SKYWARN Net, an association of amateur radio operators, demonstrated how the state's network of ham radio enthusiasts transmit "ground truth" information on tornadoes and the American Red Cross also discussed their response activities. Other speakers included Dale Shipley, former Ohio State Emergency Management Agency director and now director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency Region V; his successor in Ohio, Jim Williams; Mitch Wilson, director of Public Information and Education for the Ohio Insurance Institute; and Ed Kovar of the Miami Valley Emergency Management Agency.

Other information on the 1974 super outbreak including an audio description of the Louisville tornado by John Forsing, a report by Theodore Fujita, developer of the Fujita Tornado Scale, eye witness accounts, and side bar press releases on NOAA Weather Radio expansion, Louisville tornado, and tornado myths are available on line at: http://www.nws.noaa.gov/er/iln/supoutbr.htm

See also the "Tornado Outbreak 1974" Web site at: http://www.publicaffairs.noaa.gov/storms/