Sunday, May 8, 2022

The Story Behind the World's First Tornado Warning

by Martha Hutchens

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On March 25, 1948, Captain Robert C. Miller and Major Ernest Fawbush issued a tornado warning for Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma.

That may not sound all that interesting. After all, tornado warnings are everyday occurrences in Oklahoma. But this was the first ever tornado warning, and the circumstances surrounding it are bizarre enough that any editor would strike them out of a novel as being too unbelievable. We have the saying “truth is stranger than fiction” for a reason.

Miller arrived at his new assignment some three weeks earlier than the day of our warning. Coincidence number one. 

He was assigned to work the late shift as forecaster on March 20, 1948. Since the charts he had didn’t note the moisture content in the atmosphere, he predicted a dry night. Around 9:30 p. m., forecasters from the Will Rogers Airport sent a warning to Tinker AFB that a tornado was on the ground and headed their way. It hit Tinker at approximately 10 P. m., doing an estimated $10 million in damages. Coincidence number two.

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An inquiry was convened the next day, conducted by five generals who arrived from Washington, D. C. They declared it an act of God, and unpredictable with current knowledge. I’m sure poor Miller was relieved, but probably thought his career was irreparably damaged. Little did he know!

The tribunal did suggest that someone at the base consider ways to forecast tornadoes, and the base commander ordered Fawbush and Miller to take on the task. Keep in mind, there had been no studies on the formation of tornadoes at this time. The weather service had only started using military radar recently, and the radar at this time could only see the outline of the storm, not the internal structure. In fact, as recently as 1938, forecasters were forbidden from using the word “tornado” in predictions because any predictions were believed to be so unreliable that the panic they caused would be worse than the tornado itself. Even with these new rules, the tornado warnings were only given to emergency management personnel.

Orders are orders, and the two men starting reviewing weather conditions surrounding previous outbreaks.

They did find a pattern of phenomena. Was it sufficient information to predict the storms?

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Five days later, many of the same conditions appeared in the atmosphere. But the odds of tornadoes hitting the same place within five days were astronomically high. Sure, towns are hit more than once, but those are years apart. It is even true that one church was hit by three different tornadoes on the same day—but that was from the same family of tornadoes in the same storm.

Two separate storms wouldn’t produce tornadoes that hit the same base within five days. It couldn’t happen. And yet, those atmospheric conditions remained the same.

The commander of the base asked the men to issue a tornado forecast based on the similarities they saw. Miller typed up the warning, then left for home, confident that nothing would come of it.

But at 6 p. m., a tornado touched down and hit the very same base—the base that had two men with the training and insight to put together reams of data and find the similarities. The base that had a commanding officer intent on saving his airplanes from a second strike. The base that had been hit only five days before. Coincidence number three.

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Coincidence number four is a little more subtle. It turns out that tornadoes really are pretty unpredictable. Even today, if that tornado had hit within fifty miles of the base, it would be considered an accurate prediction. Thankfully, we don’t have to wonder if they would have considered it accurate at the time.

Unfortunately, some political wrangling ensued about who had jurisdiction for warning the public. Not until 1950, would tornado warnings be issued to the general public.

But since that time, warnings have saved countless lives, and it all started with two men trying to save a bunch of planes.

Your turn. Have you ever seen a tornado? Lived through its aftermath?

Conversely, have you ever had an experience of being in just the right place at just the right time?

Let me know in the comments.

Martha Hutchens is a transplanted southerner who lives in Los Alamos, NM where she is surrounded by history so unbelievable it can only be true. She won the 2019 Golden Heart for Romance with Religious and Spiritual Elements. A former analytical chemist and retired homeschool mom, Martha is frequently found working on her latest knitting project when she isn’t writing.

Martha’s current novella is set in southeast Missouri during World War II. It is free to her newsletter subscribers.

After saving for years, Dot Finley's brother finally paid a down payment for his own land—only to be drafted into World War II. Now it is up to her to ensure that he doesn't lose his dream while fighting for everyone else's. No one is likely to help a sharecropper's family.

Nate Armstrong has all the land he can manage, especially if he wants any time to spend with his four-year-old daughter. Still, he can't stand by and watch the Finley family lose their dream. Especially after he learns that the banker's nephew has arranged to have their loan called.

Necessity forces them to work together. Can love grow along with crops?


  1. Thanks for posting today! Happy Mother's Day! I haven't seen a tornado but have seen the results of wind shears or downbursts. Those are scary enough, I really feel for people who live through the devastion of tornados.