The use of the word tornado was banned from official releases by the U.S. Weather Bureau from 1887 until 1938. After a large tornado hit the Oklahoma Tinker Air Force Base in 1948 Major Fawbush and Captain Miller determined that tornadoes could be forecast. Though many didn’t realize it
“…the art of forecasting severe weather had been progressing rapidly. An intense debate between the air force and the U.S. Weather Bureau (later known as the National Weather Service), however, slowed public access to severe weather forecasts. For fear of creating panic, the Weather Bureau refused to make public any tornado forecasts, although Major Fawbush and Captain Miller continued to issue tornado forecasts for the air force. Those forecasts were the forerunners of what we today call tornado watches.
Finally, WKY-TV, the only television station in Oklahoma City, was given access to the air force tornado forecasts. In the spring of 1952, Harry Volkman broadcast the first televised tornado forecast. It was well received; there was no panic.” –England, Gary A. Weathering The Storm: Tornadoes, Television and Turmoil, Norman, University of Oklahoma Press. page 17.
Public forecasts have come a long way with social media and cell phones adding huge impacts on that dissemination. Just this week I received a text message as a result of the Wireless Emergency Alert system, which is to alert us where an imminent threat to life or property exists. On May 20, 2013 while I was in downtown Oklahoma City I received warnings on my phone as well as texts from friends and family advising me of immediate and dangerous severe weather. Forecasts alerted us all day of the possibility of tornadoes and as the afternoon approached the alerts grew more serious leaving no doubt in our minds that we had to seek cover if we were in certain areas. Previous generations didn’t have warnings like we have today and a few weeks ago my father shared with me his childhood experiences with tornadoes.
The time that my father, Wayne, lived at 1309 SW 36th Street was undoubtedly filled with a mixture of emotions and experiences. In 1951 Wayne was in the 6th grade and his parents were separated. Claude, his father, was a superintendent for Singer Pipe & Supply and lived in the house that was on the grounds of the pipe yard. Wayne and his sister, Claudia, lived with their mother, Ottie, who worked as a clerk at a TG&Y dime store. Their small home, built in 1946, had only one actual bedroom so Claudia and Wayne slept in bunk beds in an area on the north side of the house. Underneath the back porch was a tiny space that was like a basement where Wayne built model airplanes and more.
Wayne was especially proud of the big deer he drew on the top of the card table he used in the basement. This must have been one his first ‘Wayne caves’ and he has fond memories of that area. While living on 36th Wayne and a friend built objects including a wood army tank and inside their tank they would place their BB guns into the peak holes ready to attack if needed. The rock driveway in front of the rickety, old garage served as the staging area for the friends to construct a boat most likely made from reusing the materials from the tank. Their plan was to launch the boat in a nearby river where they dreamed of having a Tom Sawyer type experience. Though that never panned out, those projects provided great opportunities for exercising their imagination and engineering and helped create the associations in Wayne’s mind of events that happened during that time like the night a tornado visited his neighborhood.
Wayne vividly remembers being awakened and jerked out of his bunk bed when his mother grabbed his arm the evening of April 30, 1951. She also got Claudia out of bed and hollered at them to get to the basement immediately. There was little doubt in Wayne’s mind that his mother meant for them to hustle to the basement and obey her without question. As he rapidly and obediently moved to the basement he looked out the back north window and saw that the big tree, that was near their driveway and garage, was bent over to the ground. Since there was no time for questions or examination he rushed with his sister and mother to his work space that was under the porch.
Once the tornado was gone they came out and Wayne fully expected their big tree to be gone but it was standing upright. The garage, however, was moved back and over about a foot. Wayne recalls that the tornado touched down in a vacant lot that was less than a block away and went on to destroy a lumber company. The May 1, 1951 article on the front page of the Daily Oklahoman reported the damage and path which clearly identifies it was just north of their home at 1309 SW 36th Street.
We will never know how my Grandmother Ottie Brown knew that a tornado was near her home that evening. While the Brown’s got their first television when they lived on 36th street we know that the first televised tornado forecast didn’t occur until 1952. As Wayne recently thought of how his mother would have known of the storm he wondered if she observed the lights on the top of the tallest building in Oklahoma City, which were used to inform viewers of the weather forecast. However, after researching the timeline of that ‘weather beacon’ it was not available until 1958. So, perhaps a local spotter provided information that was broadcast on the radio or maybe the high winds and rain caused Ottie to take notice.
Whatever alerted her, she gathered her children and took cover.
A few years later Wayne experienced another tornado. It was in 1953 or 54 possibly. Cecil Johnson and Wayne were on a little jimmy (a flat bed truck) and had a load of drill and spuddin’ bits and were going to a location for Tiger Drilling (Singer). They were south of Enid, Oklahoma going west and were maybe 3 or 4 miles south of Enid when they saw a tornado right over their heads spinning like crazy. Cecil was trying to get to a place where he could turn south but there were only dirt roads. That tornado started going to the ground and as they were coming up over a hill it picked the truck up totally off the ground moved them from the right lane to the left lane as they were going down the hill. Wayne, still a kid, thought that was somewhat fun but Cecil was shaking like a leaf as he made a turn at the bottom of the hill. Fortunately they made their way safely home.
Storm season in Oklahoma requires we keep our eyes to the sky just like our ancestors did but now we get warnings that provide an average of 13 minutes lead time. The Saturday Evening Post, July 28, 1951 issue predicted that “The Fawbush-Miller system will not cut into the big business of selling storm cellars…But the Oklahoma farmer who said he always depended upon flying cornstalks and bed quilts to warn him of an approaching twister will now have ample time to walk—not run– to his ‘scarehole’.”
Note: The video states that the first broadcast was in 1954 but all official information indicates it was March 1952.
- Colman, Timothy A., et al. “The History (and Future) of Tornado Warning Dissemination in the United States.” American Meteorological Society, May 2011: 567-582.
- Grazulis, T. P. The Tornado: Nature’s Ultimate Windstorm Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 2003 page 83 discusses the ban of the word ‘tornado’ in public announcements.
- Tornados 101 NOAA website
- England, Gary A. Weathering the Storm: Tornadoes, Television, and Turmoil. Norman, University of Oklahoma, 1996.
- Information Services Chronology for the Tornado Outbreak of May 20, 2013
- Liberty Bank Weather Beacon newspaper articles
Nicely done mixture of research and stories. I had, by the way, visualized the direction of the storm moving south rather than north and, upon review of the map, can now see it probably passed by my location about as closely as Wayne’s – we lived at NW 4th and Blackwelder. I still don’t, as a child, recall ever seeing evidence of the effects of a tornado.
Wayne Brown said:
Talk about “historical detective work” Kay Lynne, my daughter, you certainly rank high among the historical detectives! I simply provided the recollection and you, you provided the story and supporting data. I read this with dazzling anticipation of the outcome.