NOAA and 1974 Tornado Outbreak



The 13-state tornado outbreak of April 3-4, 1974, one of the deadliest in U.S. history, demonstrated the need for a direct warning system to advise the public of approaching severe weather.

In a little more than 16 hours, 148 tornadoes killed 330 people in 13 states, injured thousands and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. The National Weather Service had issued numerous advance warnings to protect the public, but so many warnings were issued the wire services feeding commercial broadcasters couldn't keep up with the flow of information.

"Back then we only had about 50-60 Weather Radio stations in operation, and most of them were on the coasts," National Weather Service Central Region Director Richard P. Augulis said from his office in Kansas City. "There were few commercial radio and television stations hooked up to the weather wire or involved in the warning process. The communications systems in use at the time weren't nearly as sophisticated or as fast as they are today. The fastest system we had then was teletype.

"Our forecasters would issue a tornado warning for a certain location at a certain time. With so much severe weather happening at one time, it didn't take long for the queue of to get backed up. We simply couldn't transmit them quickly enough out of our offices. Commercial radio stations had their own problems re-transmitting those warnings. The situation demonstrated the Weather Service's need to be able to provide warnings directly to the public so people could take prompt action to protect themselves."

The Congressionally-directed survey conducted after the storms that raged from central Illinois to Tennessee, through Alabama to Michigan, cited lack of early warning communications as a weakness in the system. Expansion of NOAA Weather Radio across the country was the solution. The goal was 70 percent coverage of the country's population.

"Congress appropriated the money to install a 330-station network in addition to the 50- 60 stations in operation at the time," Augulis said. "The decision was made to install Weather Radio transmitters in population areas and in each location where we had an office.

"The Weather Service started a very ambitious program of installations and staff training so that people all across the country would have direct communication from the National Weather Service for the first time ever. While I don't have facts and figures to back me up, I can guarantee that expanding the network across the nation has definitely saved lives."

With the occasional installation of transmitters in new areas, after the initial expansion surge in the late 1970s, the Weather Service's radio network grew to a few more than 400 stations operating out of forecast offices around the clock. Funded largely by private interest groups, transmitters were installed in a few select areas.

Almost exactly 20 years later, another tornado outbreak prompted another push for NOAA Weather Radio expansion.

Palm Sunday 1994 - a smaller, but still fatal, outbreak of tornadoes in the South does considerable damage, especially at Piedmont, Alabama, where 20 people died when a tornado struck Goshen Church crowded with worshippers. The Piedmont area was not covered by NOAA Weather Radio.

The 1994 Palm Sunday outbreak drew Vice President Al Gore to northern Alabama, where he viewed the damages, visited with victims and announced an ambitious new approach to expansion of the warning network to cover 95 percent of the U.S. population. That NOAA Weather Radio expansion project remains in effect today, with the National Weather Service, numerous state agencies and members of private industry joining in a public/private partnership to install new transmitters in areas not previously covered.

"Development of the sciences of meteorology and hydrology to help our forecasters do a better job is a gradual, methodical process in which it is difficult to pinpoint specific milestones," Augulis said. "But the April 3-4, 1974, outbreak definitely marked a milestone for NOAA Weather Radio. As good as our relationship and cooperation with the media have been, that outbreak showed a clear need for us to issue warnings directly to the public by the fastest means possible.

"Today, we proudly state that NOAA Weather Radio is the voice of the National Weather Service. We have more than 400 NOAA Weather Radio stations on the air. Through the public/private partnership, we're installing more new transmitters all the time. Manufacturers are producing new and more sophisticated Weather Radio receivers. More and more people are listening to NOAA Weather Radio all the time.

"Without that fatal and fateful day in 1974, it might not have been that way."

For more information contact Pat Slattery at (816) 426-7621.