How Two California Guys First Called a Tornado

Air Force forecaster Robert Miller was tense. Five of the Air Force's top brass sat behind closed doors at the rubble-strewn Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma, asking why the base had been trashed without warning by a tornado the night before. Several people had been severely injured, and Uncle Sam was looking at a $10-million repair bill

A native of southern California, Mr. Miller had little experience with severe weather. He had been transferred to Tinker only 20 days before the twister struck. "It really didn't seem fair," he recalls, "that a bright young forecaster, native to an area where a mild thunderstorm was considered a holiday event,... should be thrust into an area subject to such miserable phenomena."

Miserable indeed. On March 20, 1948, Miller and a staff sergeant, also from California, had been preparing the evening forecast. Their outlook called for a dry, breezy, but dull night, according to Miller, whose written reminiscence was made available for this month's celebration of the 50th anniversary of the first public tornado warning.

By 9:30 p.m., thunderstorms were speeding toward the base from the southwest. Twenty-two minutes later, and only seven miles away, the thunderstorms had generated wind gusts of up to 92 miles an hour - and a tornado. At 10 p.m., a large tornado moved across the base, its telltale funnel illumined by "a background of continuous lightning." The review board ruled that the tornado had been too tough to call. But it recommended that the base forecasters look for ways to provide tornado forecasts.

Three days of intense study yielded clues to conditions that favored tornadic thunderstorms. Then, on the morning of March 25, Miller and his boss noticed that the charts for the day bore a striking resemblance to those of March 20. The critical period, they agreed, would be between 5 and 6 p.m.

By 1:52 p.m. thunderstorms appeared on radar. Once again, the base commander asked about issuing a tornado forecast. Again the forecasters replied, "Sure looks like the last one." With some trepidation and not-so-subtle hints from the general, they issued the tornado forecast for later that afternoon. "I wondered how I would manage as a civilian elevator operator," Miller recalls. "It seemed improbable that anyone would employ, as a weather forecaster, an idiot who issued a tornado forecast for a precise location."

By 5 p.m., thunderstorm activity was light and no tornadoes had appeared. "That did it," Miller writes. "I abandoned ship," leaving his commanding officer "to go down with the vessel." At 6 p.m., while he was at home commiserating with his wife, a squall line moved over the base. Two storm cells merged, and "the second large tornado in five days began its devastating journey across the base, very close to the track of its predecessor." Damage from the second twister amounted to only $6 million, with no injuries.

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