60 Years Ago, Aggies Helped Give First Tornado Warnings

Jul 20, 2015

In 1953, several tornadoes – including one that killed 114 people in Waco, Texas – prompted a group of government officials and scientists to say, enough is enough. There has to be some way to prepare people for such deadly storms.

The damage from the 1953 tornadoes, plus five hurricanes that struck the East Coast in 1954 and 1955, convinced Congress to increase weather funding. Two years later, on June 26, 1955, the Texas Radar Tornado Warning Network was formally dedicated at Texas A&M University and the school was instrumental in the formation of what is believed to be the first advance warning system of tornadoes in the country, one that was clearly ahead of its time. Radar – used years earlier by the military for war – was in its infancy as an indispensable tool for weather forecasts.

More than 50 weather experts, civil defense personnel and government officials gathered as Erle Hardy, regional director of what was then called the U.S. Weather Bureau, pushed a button that set the Texas A&M radar system into motion. About 17 radar systems were connected to the network, including two in adjoining states.

Noting the significance of the event, Hardy told guests and officials, “It is a historical fact that something good comes from every invention of man. We have seen radar, first used as a weapon of war, grow into a great implement of commerce, and now this group has seen radar become an instrument of lifesaving for countless communities.”

Hardy further added that Texas A&M was the best site for the radar network “because the college symbolizes the aims and objectives of the Texas Radar Tornado Warning System. It (Texas A&M) is dedicated to the betterment of the youth of our state and to the world at large.”

Also taking part in the ceremony were Waco Mayor O.B. Robertson, who had seen much of his city flattened by the May 11, 1953 tornado; W.H. Delaplane, dean of Texas A&M’s School of Arts and Sciences; and Capt. H.T. Orville, retired weather expert from the Navy who was working for the Bendix Aviation Corp. It’s believed Orville was the first to advocate a nationwide network of radar stations to track severe weather.

Orville noted that as early as 1945, weather experts thought it was possible that tornadoes could be observed on radar, “but no positive action was taken to develop an effective radar warning network.

“Damaging effects of high winds on various types of buildings indicate a need for tightening up building code regulations in many states,” Orville added. “Scientifically trained teams should immediately make a survey of a town that has been struck by a tornado to permit study of weather data….It is fitting to consider this Texas Radar Tornado Warning Network as a memorial to all people in Texas who have lost their lives in these destructive storms.”

Orville’s son, Richard, who was 19 at the time, would go on to be a national severe storms expert at Texas A&M and has taught at the school since 1991. He was instrumental in founding the National Lightning Detection Network which has greatly added to the knowledge base about lightning.

The tornado warning group’s main goal was to determine that a tornado was on the ground and to give people as much warning time as possible – but in many cases, it was only a few minutes.

The main problem: not all tornadoes came with distinctive radar patterns, and not all storms creating suspicious radar patterns produced tornadoes. But there was little doubt the system worked – by the end of 1955, despite a record 164 tornadoes in Texas, there were only two deaths related to the storms.

In the 60 years since the tornado network was formed, there have been big changes. The damage from the 1953 tornadoes, plus five hurricanes that struck the East Coast in 1954 and 1955, convinced Congress to increase funding for the National Weather Service. The success of the Texas Radar Tornado Warning Network and other weather radars led to a national radar network that still provides critical information for severe weather warnings.

“Since the 1950s, the technology related to radar and severe storms has improved immensely,” says John Nielsen-Gammon, Texas A&M professor of atmospheric sciences who also serves as Texas State Climatologist.

“With better radar equipment and storm spotters on the ground, the advance warning time has increased from just a few minutes to as much as 15-20 minutes, and every minute can save lives. Warnings have become more specific regarding time and place.

“With the advent of Doppler Radar in the early 1990s, we can now look at air motion inside storms,” he adds. “We can see the rotation of a thunderstorm, and sometimes even the tornado itself. The newest technology is called polarimetric radar, which lets the National Weather Service spot the debris picked up by a tornado and distinguish it from rain and hail.”

Media contact: John Nielsen-Gammon at (979) 862-2248 or n-g@tamu.edu or Richard Orville at (979) 845-7671 or rorville@tamu.edu or Keith Randall, News & Information Services, at (979) 845-4644 or keith-randall@tamu.edu