Tornadoes have been spotted all around the globe. In the suburbs of Rome in 1749, in Bangladesh, Australia and elsewhere. But nowhere in the world are conditions more perfect for tornadoes than the Central Plains of North America. The Great Tri-state Tornado of 1925 was the deadliest in American history. It killed some 900 people in Missouri, Illinois and Indiana. A new book delves into the history of Americans’ relationship with twisters. And new research by the National Severe Storms Lab examines whether climate change is affecting the incidence or severity of tornadoes.
- Harold Brooks research meteorologist at NOAA's National Severe Storms Lab.
- Lee Sandlin Chicago-based journalist and author of "Wicked River."
Read An Excerpt
Excerpted from “Storm Kings” by Lee Sandlin. Copyright © 2013 by Lee Sandlin. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. The U.S. leads the world in tornadoes. We get an average of more than 1,000 a year, Canada, a distant second at only 100. A new book draws on eyewitness accounts and archival research to tell the story of great twisters of the past. The book is titled "Storm Kings: The Untold History of America's First Tornado Chasers."
MS. DIANE REHMAuthor Lee Sandlin joins me in the studio, and Harold Brooks, a tornado expert with NOAA's National Severe Storms Lab. He joins me from a studio in Norman, Okla. to talk about the latest research. We invite you to join the conversation. Call us on 800-433-8850. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, follow us on Facebook, or send us a tweet. Good morning to both of you.
MR. LEE SANDLINGood morning.
MR. HAROLD BROOKSGood morning.
REHMGood to have you both with us. Lee Sandlin, you open the book with 17th century with some of the...
REHM...with some of the first scattered reports of these bizarre terrifying things. Describe that.
SANDLINWell, the thing that fascinated me most when I was starting to write the book was that when people began settling in North America, they had no idea what tornados were, and they had never heard of them before. They had no idea that there were any kind of -- it was this sort of characteristic American storm. So when they first started seeing them, and they first started being caught up in them, they had no idea what was killing them.
SANDLINAnd that was, I thought, a really intriguing thing to figure out was how they gradually got a handle on these. Part of the problem for them is that in New England which is where most of the settlement was, tornadoes are very rare. They had no sense, because they had not yet ventured into the Midwest of -- that they were common or a frequent occurrence.
REHMAnd then you jump to 1925. Tell us about that tri-state tornado.
SANDLINWell, the tri-state tornado was the worst tornado on record, the strongest and most longest lasting. Most tornadoes last about 20 minutes on average, and this one seems to have held together for more than four hours. And -- yeah, and it started in Missouri, crossed through southern Illinois, and broke up in Indiana. And over the course of this one afternoon, 900 people were killed by it.
SANDLINYeah, 900, yeah. And the thing that's interesting about that though is that people at that time thought that there had never been a tornado like that, but one of the things I discovered when I was doing some of the research for the book is that there had been another tornado of almost exactly the same strength that followed exactly the same course that happened in 1805.
SANDLINAnd the only issue then was there was -- southern Illinois, that part of the country was completely unsettled, so it didn't cause any deaths. What it did was it left a debris trail through the deep forest that was two miles wide and several hundred miles long, this immense wall of downed trees that prevented anybody from traveling through that part of the country for 50 years.
REHMLee Sandlin. His new book is titled "Storm Kings: The Untold Story of America's" -- pardon me.
SANDLINQuite all right.
REHM"First Storm Chasers." I'll get to storm chasers in just a moment, but Harold Brooks, explain the science behind tornadoes. What is it that actually causes them?
BROOKSWell, our best understanding right now is that we need a thunderstorm, a storm that actually is rotating. And we get a rotating thunderstorm when we have lots of warm moisture at low levels of the atmosphere, relatively cold, dry air aloft, and then the winds increasing in height in the environment so that the winds -- light winds, or not so strong winds at the surface, and much stronger winds aloft.
BROOKSAnd typically the winds blow out of the south at low levels and from the west aloft, and that means that when a storm forms that environment, that that storm will actually rotate. And rotating thunderstorms are much more likely to make tornados. And as far as we know, the place in the planet where those conditions come together the most often is in the central part of the United States.
REHMAnd when you say the central part, you mean the Plains for the most part?
BROOKSWell, really the Plains, but you can extend it actually, you know, anywhere between the Rockies and the Appalachian Mountains are probably prone to tornadoes. Some of those areas slightly less than others, but compared to the rest of the planet, clearly, that's the dominant region.
REHMSo Lee Sandlin, why are those areas more prone?
SANDLINWell, I think that explanation is -- you have the main factors being cold air coming from Canada and warm air -- warm humid air coming from the Gulf of Mexico. And you have this flat plain where the atmosphere can interact with complete freedom. They don't have mountain ranges to break it up or cause odd currents in the air.
SANDLINAnd so it's sort of like the perfect laboratory for tornadoes to form. They do form in other countries. Similar conditions exist, for instance in Bangladesh, for instance. And the tornado that has the highest death toll on record was in Bangladesh, where you have cold air coming off the Himalayas and warm air coming from the Indian Ocean.
REHMWhat year would that have been?
SANDLINOh, I'm blanking on it now. I believe it was in the '90s.
SANDLINBut America is where the conditions are perfect for so much of the time. It really takes sort of fluke conditions for it to happen elsewhere.
REHMWhere did the word tornado come from?
SANDLINWell, that's an odd thing because the word existed before anybody knew what the thing was. Tornado was a word that was used in the early 17th century by sailors in the Caribbean and in the tropics. And it's very hard to tell what they meant by it, partially because in those days they didn't really draw distinctions among storms that clearly. They didn't really have a sense that storms had particular types.
SANDLINSo you find people using the word tornado and hurricane and cyclone and gale completely indiscriminately, sometimes in the same sentence, to talk about the same storm. But at that time it appears to have referred to a storm where the winds came from different directions. The word is rooted in Spanish, both the word for storm and the world for turning. It didn't start getting applied to what we call tornadoes until the late 18th century.
REHMHarold, do you want to add to that?
BROOKSWell, yeah. It's quite possibly a corruption of the fact that things are turning. If we look into -- Italians say there's a word, tromba d'aria or air trumpet. And so they had -- which tried to look at what a tornado would look like. And so that notion that the tromba is a storm in -- or some form of that kind of a word is in most of the Latin languages, and it appears that the Spanish picked up on something like that. And it eventually got corrupted into tornado in English.
REHMHarold, how did you first become involved with and interested in tornadoes?
BROOKSWell, my parents will claim it's about a month before I was born when there was a tornado in St. Louis in February of 1959 that the -- what we now -- I now understand was the mesocyclone, the circulation before the tornado formed, passed over their house. And the tornado started about a half mile east of their house, and that's what they would claim. And really it was -- you know, growing up in St. Louis, tornadoes are a major part of what you think about.
BROOKSYou could still see -- when I was young, if you went to a hockey game at the arena in St. Louis, you could actually still see where one end of the building had been damaged. And they had put newer wood on part of the building, so it was a constant reminder of that. And tornadoes are just endlessly fascinating.
REHMAnd fascinating to Benjamin Franklin, Lee.
SANDLINOh, yeah. He's the first person who seems to have done a systematic study of tornadoes. He started with water spouts. People knew about water spouts for a long time. The Romans wrote about them. They're mentioned in the Bible, but...
REHMAnd that would be the same thing virtually?
SANDLINYeah. It's essentially a tornado over water.
SANDLINBut at that point people had no idea what they were, and Franklin spent a few years fascinated by the subject of water spouts and did a lot of research on them. And he was the first person that I was able to find who had the idea that a water spout would work -- would survive on land as well. So he started -- he never called them tornadoes. He said he was looking for land spouts as opposed to water spouts.
REHMAnd then you had James Espy...
REHM...and William Redfield and what they called a storm war.
SANDLINThe storm war, yeah. Yeah. This is one of the reasons -- you know, I'm not a trained scientist. I'm a journalist. And the thing is that you're always looking for good stories. And when I started getting interested in tornadoes, I was looking back through the early history of meteorology. And I came upon this story that people haven't really talked about that much, which was that this immense decades-long feud among meteorologists in America in the 19th century over what tornadoes were and how they behaved.
SANDLINAnd so the first half of the book is telling that story, and they -- it's a really fascinating study in not only the nature of science, but in the nature of human psychology.
REHMWell, what did they get into a fight about?
SANDLINWell, the two main principles -- one was a man named James Espy, who called himself America's first professional meteorologist, and he worked with the Smithsonian. And the other was an amateur named William Redfield, and Espy was the person who figured out that the motive power of a tornado was a process called convection, that the basis of a tornado was a column of rising hot air.
SANDLINRedfield was the one who figured out that storms like tornadoes and hurricanes rotate, and the thing is that each of them refused to believe the other's side of it. So Espy refused to believe that tornadoes rotated, and Redfield refused to believe that it had anything to do with hot air rising. And in fact, as we know now, both sides are true.
REHMBoth sides are true.
SANDLINYeah. Yeah. And -- but neither one was willing to concede an inch to the other.
REHMAnd how did that finally get resolved?
REHMOr maybe it didn't.
SANDLINIt really didn't. Neither one of them ever conceded that the other was right, and what happened was that the next generation, there was a meteorologist whose name was William Ferrel who figured out the solution.
REHMLee Sandlin. He's author of a new book. It's titled "Storm Kings: The Untold History of America's First Tornado Chasers." Lee is a Chicago-based journalist.
REHMAnd welcome back. If you've just joined us we're talking about tornadoes. Lee Sandlin is a journalist. He's just written a book titled "Storm Kings: The Untold History of America's First Tornado Chasers." And joining us from a studio at KGOU in Norman, Oklahoma, Harold Brooks. He's research meteorologist with NOAA's National Severe Storms Lab in Oklahoma. Before we go back to Harold Brooks, Lee Sandlin, tell us about these tornado chasers, who they were, what they did and how they did it.
SANDLINWell, my book is mostly about the earliest generations of chasers. The first person who actually chased a tornado was Benjamin Franklin, who did it on horseback who chased a...
SANDLINLiterally on horseback, yeah. He was -- he and a party were riding through the New England country sides. A small funnel cloud formed. And while everybody else was rearing back in terror, he started just chasing after it and was on horse through the forests. And so that's sort of where it starts. There seems to be a compulsion people have when they see one of these things, not to run away but instead to want to chase them. And so that was really the start of it.
SANDLINIn the 19th century of course it was -- since tornadoes were unpredictable, it was just simply a fluke event if somebody was close enough to get a good look at them. And now we have a whole generation of people who are doing it, a lot for science, a lot as just for the thrill of it, a lot for money. There's people who are giving tornado tours, and they -- so it's become this kind of remarkable subculture.
REHMHarold, have you ever been a storm chaser?
BROOKSI've chased for fun, and I've chased with a field project. I don't do very much anymore now that my -- I'm getting a little old to meet a -- to go out there very much. But back certainly when I was a graduate student and a post doc, I did it quite a bit and seen a number of tornadoes.
REHMTell me what it feels like to chase a tornado and how close you got to it.
BROOKSWell, for the most part it's a pretty boring thing to do. You spend a lot of time in a vehicle. You may drive, you know, for eight or nine, ten hours a day or even more and in trying to see it for maybe 30 second or a minute. And so it's not necessarily all excitement, but that it -- one of the things as a meteorologist and someone interested in severe storms, one of the things is that it sort of validates your understanding of the atmosphere.
BROOKSWhen you -- it's a real test of your forecast because you've committed yourself both in time and money for the gas and all to go out and see something and your understanding of how the atmosphere behaves. I think the closest I've probably ever been is probably somewhere around a quarter mile to half a mile away.
BROOKSI don't need to get real close. I've been -- you know, there was a -- my wife and I were discussing the first time she saw a tornado a few years -- like about 20 years ago now, that we were actually fortunate to be within a violent tornado about three miles away for about 45 minutes. And so that was -- you know, that was about as good of a day as it could be.
REHMAnd what was the worst tornado you ever saw or tracked?
BROOKSWell, I -- in terms of actually when I was chasing, I've never seen a tornado that's killed anyone. I've -- that's just been -- not necessarily by, you know, my presence there obviously didn't have anything to do with it. But just by the days that I've been able to chase, I've been in some sense fortunate that that hasn't happened. There are lots of storms though that -- terms of professionally that I'm not chasing that I've been involved in watching that, you know, have obviously been, you know, the full extreme of events.
REHMAnd the worst one?
BROOKSOh probably -- I mean, in terms that I was paying much attention to was the Oklahoma City tornado of May 3, 1999 because that was -- that passed about 10 or 12 miles from my house and was the kind of thing that, when the tornado was forming, I recognized that there was actually a chance that it would be a threat to where I lived. And so I was, at that point, actually most concerned about what I was going to do with my family and make sure we were safe and to be prepared for what could be happening.
REHMHere is an email from Peter who says he's over 70, but when he was young, he remembers tornadoes occurring beginning in late March when the lingering winter cold collided with warm wet gulf area. "I don't remember," he says, "tornadoes in January. Why so early and is there a risk we could have them year round?" Harold.
BROOKSWell, we've always had tornadoes year round. Part of it is just awareness. If we go back historically, one of the great outbreaks of tornadoes in U.S. history was in February of 1884. And so those kinds of events have happened actually during -- throughout the course of the year. We see some evidence perhaps that there's a little bit of increase in the variability, but not in terms of the timing of things, but not a tremendous amount. Tornadoes have occurred on every day of the calendar year. In fact, there have been, you know, just...
BROOKSAnd so that's a -- kind of (unintelligible) perception.
REHMLee, talk about fire tornadoes.
SANDLINAh, controversial subject. I have an account in the book of a fire tornado that destroyed a town called Peshtigo in Wisconsin.
SANDLINYeah, and that was a 19th century tornado. What the witnesses said they saw was a gigantic funnel cloud that was -- consisted entirely of flame. Now this is in the middle of a major forest fire. And now I found, since then, other accounts that huge forest fires generate their own kind of mesoclimate, you know, this sort of middle level climate. They can generate a storm system of their own if the fires are large enough and intense enough. And some of them can produce, in effect, a thunderstorm over a fire.
SANDLINAnd so it's possible that a tornado would form -- could form in the midst of this. And apparently in the 19th century in this one instance, the witnesses agreed that one did. And the version I give in the book is what people said they saw then. It's always an issue with 19th century and earlier weather that you can look back on it now and say, they must have seen it wrong. Maybe it really wasn't like that. But enough of the witnesses appeared to agree that I thought this is a pretty extraordinary event on its own.
SANDLINNow since then, people have -- I've seen video of very weak funnels forming within -- over intense fires. Nothing like what was supposed to happen at Peshtigo, but it does appear that the conduction column over a fire can produce a whirl of air, and the flames are drawn up into it. It's quite an amazing sight.
REHMHarold, have you ever studied such a tornado?
BROOKSWell, to say I've studied them would be probably an overstatement, but I think that we're aware of the fact that when you do get an intense rising of air associated with a fire, that you can get rotation associated with it, that that's a -- that's not an uncommon thing in the atmosphere that -- challenges though is having witnesses there who can -- who see it because that's not a very nice place to be. And, in fact, Peshtigo is an interesting case just as a fire anyway. That's the same night as the Chicago fire. And so historically it's a major event.
BROOKSAnd Peshtigo didn't get as much attention because it's a rural area of Wisconsin, but that was clearly a big time for fire weather in the U.S. that year.
SANDLINYeah, there was a major, major drought, and so fires broke out simultaneously in Chicago and in Wisconsin and in Michigan. And those -- the rural fires were vastly larger than the Chicago fire. But because there were few people around to see them, they never got the kind of attention the Chicago fire did.
REHMI see. I gather that up until World War II, it was forbidden to predict tornadoes?
SANDLINYeah, National Weather Service banned using the word tornado in forecasts. Some weathermen tried to get around that by using the phrase violent local storm.
SANDLINWell, there were a couple of reasons, which -- how legitimate do you think they are, looking back on it, I think is an open question. But the reason they said that they banned the word is because they thought tornadoes were inherently unpredictable. And so predicting a tornado would cause a panic...
SANDLIN...that would be worse than the tornado itself. You know, during the tri-state tornado, which I mentioned about those, the National Weather Service--it was on the ground for so long that they could've issued warnings all along the route and they didn't. So it's very hard to say that the panic would've been worse than what did happen.
SANDLINThe other perhaps less creditable reason now is that there was a lot of pressure on the government in those years to play down the danger of tornadoes by businesses and real estate people in the Midwest, because they didn't want people to get the idea that tornadoes were a major danger.
REHMHarold, do you want to talk about that?
BROOKSThat's pretty much my understanding of the situation, that in fact, in particular one of the places that led to it was one of the early directors that became the weather service was from Iowa and was afraid of the fact that there were 25 tornadoes reported in the United States during the year would cause people not to move to Iowa. Now we know that number's more like 1300.
BROOKSBut certainly tri-state was the beginning of a -- I think a change in our understanding. The tornado happened on a Wednesday and if you look at the New York Times on the following Sunday there's actually a letter to the editor pointing out that there are over 200 people killed in Murfreesboro, Ill. more than two hours after the first fatalities. And why wasn't word being passed downstream?
BROOKSI think in one sense to me when I look at it that prior to that there's a sense when you read stories that tornadoes are almost this finger of God that touched down in someplace and hit it and go away. And the tri-state people started to really understand that there's sometimes a very long track that's associated with them, that we might know the events going on for a long time. And that there was, in some sense, no reason why we weren't letting people know that this event was coming at them.
REHMAre there more tornadoes now than say 30 years ago?
BROOKSNo, not that we can tell. There's certainly better reporting. If we look at just the weakest tornadoes, the F0 tornadoes, the weakest on the scale of zero to five that we use, they've increased by about 14 per year over the last 50 or 60 years. But if we look at the -- everything else, that number has been relatively constant with lots of year-to-year variability averaging around 500 or so tornadoes of at least F1 intensity in the U.S. per year.
REHMYou might just talk about how the National Weather Service's warning system works.
BROOKSWell, the warning system for the National Weather Service actually begins earlier than warnings. It begins with forecasts that may be out as long as a week in advance from the storm prediction center that indicate the conditions are favorable for severe thunderstorms to be forming in a region. And then on the particular day, there'll be maybe -- there's likely to be a tornado watch issued that will say -- that's, you know, maybe an area the size of half the state of Iowa or so, valid for about six hours that says that any storm that forms in that region is quite potentially going to produce a tornado.
BROOKSAnd then tornado warnings exist for a particular storm and lasts for about 45 minutes and say that this storm is either producing a tornado now or will produce a tornado soon. And that the information they have for that come from radars that help us look at what's going on inside of the storm and also trained weather spotters that will say, you know, this is what I see when I'm in the field.
BROOKSAnd they can interact with emergency management and the weather service to help answer particular questions about what behaviors we're looking for. And our understanding of what happens before a tornado that they can say these kinds of behaviors are happening or are not happening.
REHMHarold Brooks. He's a research meteorologist with NOAA's National Severe Storms Lab in Oklahoma. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I gather 2011 was a very bad year for tornadoes, Harold. Why was that?
BROOKSWell, we end up -- for a bad tornado season to -- we end up having is a combination of the meteorological event and actually interacting with human populations. If large tornadoes occur, such as the one that Lee mentioned in 1805, and it doesn't hit anything, any (word?) structures, we don't really notice it. If it hits lots of structures, it does. The conditions particularly in the second half of April of 2011 were perfect for tornadoes in the southeastern U.S. The wind shear that I talked about, the change of winds with height was much more than normal.
BROOKSAnd that's the kind of thing that any storms that form are likely to produce tornadoes. And we had one especially bad day, April the 27th which had tornadoes in Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia, Virginia, which killed over 300 people on the one day, and then a really unfortunate combination of events of a strong tornado going through a highly populated area on May the 22nd in Joplin, Mo. that killed 158 people.
BROOKSAnd that's the kind of event we hadn't seen a fatality total that high since the late 1940s. And it was the combination of one incredible day in some sense in the southeastern U.S., and then one particular storm that Joplin, as far as we can tell, was very similar to a storm that happened even just a few years before that. But that passed 10 miles south of town and killed only 22 people. And so, you know, a small change in the path could dramatically decrease or increase the death tolls.
SANDLINAnd the other thing about the Joplin storm, which is really kind of worrying over the long haul, is that one of the reasons the death toll appears to have been so high is that people, even though they heard the warnings, didn't listen to them. And when they heard the warnings and did listen to them, they had no shelter.
SANDLINOne of the things that's been happening in the Midwest in the last several years -- you know, the Midwest is getting enormously overbuilt, but very little of the new construction of housing -- for instance, there are no basements. There are no interior closets. There are none of the most elementary places to hide. It's as though a lot of the development now is going on with no sense that tornadoes are a problem.
REHMSo if you're out in a storm, what are the signs a tornado might be near? And if so, what should you do, Harold?
BROOKSWell, the biggest thing is you need to pay enough attention to the weather on a day to know that today is one of those rare days when a tornado might form. If I'm at home, it's fairly simple. I -- you go to the lowest floor, interior room, small room, and that helps your probability a lot, but that you should be knowing that today's a day when I need to be paying attention to the weather. Make sure I've got local weather information available to me that can tell me that this storm is actually doing something.
BROOKSIf you're outside on your own and you're not trained to see what you're looking at, it could be very difficult to know what's going on if you're not in exactly the right position. So I think the biggest message is that -- most days none of us really need a forecast. The weather's like yesterday. But if you pay attention enough to the forecast to know that this is one of the rare days when severe thunderstorms might form, you start paying attention.
BROOKSAnd you are available to listen to information. You aren't listening to a CD or MP3 player in your car. You're actually listening to weather information. You're not watching a movie on TV where you can't actually see what the information is.
REHMHave you ever been in a tornado, Lee?
SANDLINYeah, I was. I was in a small one when I was a teenager. And it was an extraordinary experience. It was actually very useful for this book because, when I was in the tornado, I had no idea what was happening.
REHMLee Sandlin. His new book is titled "Storm Kings." Short break, right back.
REHMAnd it's time now to open the phones. Let's go first to Mandarin, Fla. Susie.
SUSIEI was a young teenage girl when my father moved our family from the hurricane magnet of Charleston, S.C. to tornado alley Topeka, Kan. Within a few days of arriving there, we were out in the car looking for a house -- a neighborhood, you know, to purchase a house, and not aware at all of tornadoes. It was June 8, 1966, I think it was, and, unfortunately, we landed right in the path of a tornado.
REHMOh, my goodness.
SUSIESo there were just a handful of fatalities, not that that means anything to the people who did die. But we were basically right under its path, and it was quite a sight to see the green sky and hear the sounds, you know, the locomotive sound. You know, I'm not a person prone to anxiety, but listening to this show I've had -- this is the fourth wave of chest-tightening, heart-pounding feeling.
REHMOh, my goodness. I'm so sorry.
SUSIENo, no. I just wanted to tell you that some of the neighborhoods where we'd actually gone to look at houses and eventually did purchase in some of those neighborhoods -- or one of those neighborhoods. As I, you know, nosy kid, went into some of the areas where houses had been sucked out of the earth, clean out of the earth. They had their cement basements.
SUSIEAnd I remember distinctly one thing, going to a mirror in a basement bathroom area where there was nothing else in that entire thing, pulling the magnet of the mirror face open and seeing the razors and the toothbrushes that had -- for whatever reason, the force had not opened the mirror, you know. And it just -- I think the last sentence I want to say basically is that seeing the difference for me is that, in a tornado, the -- I know as scientists, it's different.
SUSIEYou look at this differently. But the predictability of a path, you know, in a hurricane you have some run left, run right, you know, go back, you know, north, whatever. But in a tornado, it twists and turns and reverses itself, goes wide, goes narrow, skips and jumps. And all that just adds to the psychotic fear of it. So thanks for the show. I think it's very timely, Diane, you know, to do this in the spring. I appreciate your thoughtfulness.
REHMSusie, thanks for calling. Lee.
SANDLINYeah, I just want to say one thing to you about that, which is the -- when you're describing these anxieties, you're not alone in that at all. One of the things that I discovered researching 19th century reports of tornadoes is that many, many people, even in those days, reported feeling intense anxiety 20 or 30 years afterwards. Essentially every time the southwestern sky, a storm formed, people would panic all over again if they'd been in a tornado once. So what you're describing is a very common reaction to being in a tornado.
REHMAny comment, Harold?
BROOKSWell, the Topeka tornado of 1966, actually one of the other things is that many places that haven't been hit for a long time have myths of some kinds that say this is why our town hasn't been hit, that we're protected by something. And Topeka was one of the most famous, that there's a Burnett's Mound, a hill out on the southwest side of town was why Topeka had supposedly never been hit.
BROOKSAnd June 8, '66 F5 tornado comes through the middle of town, touches down on Burnett's Mound and comes into town and sort of lay waste to that myth. But lots of other places -- and if you go around towns in Oklahoma, if a town has not been hit, there's some reason supposedly why it hasn't been hit. So Norman, we were told, a lot of people still think that the bend of the river just southwest of us is why Norman hasn't been hit.
BROOKSAnd then we've had three violent tornadoes in the vicinity just in the last few years that's sort of had people rethinking that idea.
SANDLINYeah, and I just wanted to follow up on what Harold said, that this idea of these myths goes back to the Native Americans. One of the first things that the Native Americans told the white settlers at a brief time when they were still willing to give white settler advice was that you should build tornadoes -- or build your communities at river junctions because tornadoes don't cross rivers. And as I'm sure Harold can testify. St. Louis, which is at the major river junction in North America, has never been free of tornadoes.
REHMSo here's an email saying, "Native Americans lived in tornado alley long before Europeans. How did they deal with them, and what were the myths about how the tornadoes were divine acts?"
SANDLINWell, I have in the book a long account I found from a white settler who was traveling with a Native American tribe that got caught in a tornado. And they naturally saw it as essentially something god-like. And their basic method of survival -- they were very practical. They understood the closer you got to the ground, you know, lie flat if a tornado was coming across. They had the practical information. But they would also pray, as they saw the funnel cloud approaching, that it would swerve away.
REHMBut they would lie flat.
SANDLINYeah, they would -- sometimes they would dig trenches if they were traveling so that they could -- so the people could hide in the trenches.
SANDLINA lot of them were doing buffalo herding, and they would build these little corrals and shelters from the hills. If they were -- they were good enough at reading the sky, so they often had several hours warning before a bad storm came over.
REHMInteresting. All right. To Maureen here in Washington, D.C. You're on the air.
MAUREENHi, Thanks for taking my call. My name's Maureen, and I work for the American Meteorological Society Education Program.
MAUREENAnd I was just calling because we get a lot of questions from students who are interested in researching tornadoes. And I was wondering if Harold could give us any insight on which subjects were most beneficial in getting him into researching tornadoes.
BROOKSWell, I was a physics and math undergraduate major and actually spent a brief time doing climate research for my master's degree, but a lot of math, a lot of sort of basic physics -- physical understanding. And one of the things that helps an awful lot is the ability to write computer code because a lot of the work we do involves being able to model the storms or being able to analyze the datasets. And those things inherently require you to be able to look at really large datasets, which, I mean, you've got to be able to use the computer well.
REHMSo if you don't like math and you don't like computers, this is not a job for you, Maureen.
BROOKSYou're limited on what you're going to do.
MAUREENAwesome. Well, thank you so much.
REHMAnd thanks for calling. Here is a question from John in Denton, Texas. "Do either of you have a tornado shelter at home?" Harold?
BROOKSI have an in-residence shelter. It's the walk-in closet of our master bedroom suite that we actually -- when we did the addition under the house back about nine years ago, that's what we put in. And before that we didn't have it, and I was -- I like to think of myself as being incredibly coldly logical about it that knowing how long and, you know, with the chances of us actually getting it that we were able to live without it for several years. And then when I did the addition onto it, I thought it was worthwhile to put it in then.
REHMHow large is it?
BROOKSWell, it's got enough room for my wife and I's clothes and shoes, so it's a walk-in closet. And we -- so it's probably about 6' by maybe 10', and it's 6" reinforced concrete with rebar every 6" all around it and a steel door with three points of attachment. It's built to -- FEMA puts out guidelines based on work that was done originally at Texas Tech University that allow you to build these things.
BROOKSIt's not clear to me that if I was -- that I do it completely from scratch. But if I was doing new construction or if I was doing the addition like we did, it's certainly worthwhile. It adds a couple of thousand dollars to the cost of the structure.
REHMSo since you built it, have there been tornadoes that have come close enough for you to use it?
BROOKSMy wife did one time when I was -- actually when I was out chasing with my son. And she didn't actually need to have gone in that evening. But then there was -- on May 24, 2011, we actually were prepared to go in. They were close enough that we were thinking about it.
BROOKSWe were sort of down to the -- we put the valuables in there that we wanted in and gotten the dirty clothes out of the closet so we could be prepared to go in. And we were maybe 10 seconds away from going in at any point and watching the radar and everything. We never -- didn't have to go. But that's the closest I've ever been.
REHMHow about you, Lee?
SANDLINI haven't built a storm shelter. I too -- I live in an old Victorian house that's really very solidly built. And it does have interior closets with no -- with an extra supporting wall. So that's, I'm figuring, is kind of my best shot.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Tonasket, Wash. Good morning, Robert.
ROBERTGood morning. I'm calling to talk to Lee. If he was living around the state of Wisconsin, Illinois state line up by Belvedere about a month from now in '67, '68 when we had an F5 tornado that hit Belvedere that kind of raced from Belvedere to the outskirts of Chicago, and if he was familiar with it...
SANDLINI do remember that storm very vividly from my childhood. I was not directly in it, but I got caught on the fringes of it. And that in itself was terrifying. Just as we were getting out of school that day and the sky got absolutely pitch black.
SANDLINYeah, and it got very windy very fast. And the school, at that point, since nobody really had any idea what to do about storms, they sent us home. They made us walk out of the school into the storm, as they would be safer than, you know -- or maybe it's just they were worried about liability. But we were all out in the outdoors when the storm passed overhead. It was quite scary.
REHMHarold, how about you?
BROOKSNo, I haven't. My most embarrassing moment was my wife -- there actually was a tornado warning at a school she teaches at a couple years ago -- I was out of town -- and had damage just on the -- just across the street from her school. But it -- I've never been in a position that was that -- it was actually that close personally.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Oklahoma City. Hi, Matt.
MATTHi, Diane. Thanks for taking my call.
MATTI wanted to mention -- I lived in Oklahoma all my life and have been blessed to not been in a tornado, although there have been some relatively close calls. But I don't feel like I trust the local weather anymore. They seem to blow everything out of proportion. If it's, you know, a couple of raindrops, then there's a chance of tornadoes. So I'm wondering, you know, when do I actually need to turn on the TV and pay attention? Do I need to wait for tornado sirens, or how much can I really trust the news media when they seem to be focused more on ratings than my safety?
REHMWhat do you think, Harold?
BROOKSThat's a difficult question. What I would actually do is -- I mean, for me and what I tell my wife to do, again, when I'm out of town or something is that, you know, you pay attention to the morning news. And the forecast will -- is pretty good about saying today's a day when things might happen. And I think one of the really interesting things was that many of us had been worried and with the local media overhyping events is what they would do when the really big event happened.
BROOKSAnd on May 3, 1999 there was actually a very different tone. It was -- instead of overhyping, it was very calm, was, this is serious. And you could tell by the tone of their voices. If you wait for the sirens, you probably have waited -- you're probably waiting too long.
BROOKSSirens are one way to communicate, but our local media, I think they tend to overhype things that are distant from Oklahoma City. But they actually do a fairly good job when their major market is threatened. And you kind of have to learn how to read what they're saying a little bit. But just pay attention, and they don't do too bad of a job.
SANDLINWell, the other thing, I am very worried about the overhyping in local media about the weather because almost everything -- a light rainstorm now is being predicted as, like, the return of Noah's Ark. And it's becoming a real problem because weather -- news gets ratings. However, people do have alternative sources available to them now. You don't have to depend on the local news. You can check whether the National Weather Service is issuing storm warnings. And those, they're really much more practical and realistic about the dangers.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to St. Louis, Mo. Good morning, Mike.
MIKEGood morning, Diane. Thank you.
MIKEI grew up in Cincinnati, and I don't know if your gentlemen are familiar with the outbreak in 1974 of tornadoes that literally went all the way from deep in the South up into Canada. And I was on top of a roof, after I got home from work, with egg-sized hailstones, and it was a completely clear sky. And then it got really dark, and I could see across the river this wall of black.
MIKEAnd I watched an F5 tornado form and took photos of it, probably about five to 10 miles away. But it looked pretty close. And I hadn't heard that until I got to the Weather Channel about 10 years ago, and they mentioned there were three F5 tornadoes in Cincinnati on that date in April of '74. And has the tornado belt shifted north?
BROOKSNot that we can tell. It's -- There may have been some. We know that when we look at long records we see things moving around. And it's really hard to tell if there's any trends or whether it's just, you know, random processes that we can -- when we try to look at what we think is our best estimate of the current distribution of tornadoes they go -- we fine variability even just with random processes.
BROOKSThe April 3, '74 outbreak was -- is one of the probably six or seven biggest days going back in U.S. history with -- a little bit bigger than the April 27, 2011. But there are four or five other days when we go back, at least to the 1880s where we see things that are at least qualitatively similar kinds of events. So that was a very rare event you experienced.
REHMHave they gotten any worse as time has gone on?
BROOKSNo evidence that the intensity has changed at all. It's difficult to pull off because the most intense events are really rare, you know, one or two a year. And so -- or ten a year maybe at the most -- and that -- you know, statistically that's hard to deal with when you're looking at the extreme ends of a distribution. But as far as we can tell, there has been no change in the intensity over the years.
REHMAnd, Lee, what's the difference between a tornado spotter and a chaser?
SANDLINWell, spotters are usually people who are associated with just simply reporting storms in. Chasers are the crazy people who actually go out in cars and try to track them down and get as close as they can to tornadoes. Now there's a lot of really good scientific reasons for chasing tornadoes, but a lot of other people are just doing it for laughs really.
SANDLINOne person told me that the real danger from tornado chasing now is getting rear-ended by another tornado chaser when you're approaching a funnel. So there's a lot of tornadoes now where, instead of there being one spotter in the distance, there are dozens of chasers all with their Doppler radar surrounding the funnel as it's moving, which gives an immense amount of data, but it also creates a kind of spectator sport feeling to them.
REHMAnd, of course, we've seen photographs of things whirling in the air, pieces of houses, even creatures in pastures.
SANDLINOh, yeah, yeah. Yeah well, that's one of the things. When you have winds 300 miles an hour, it's extraordinary what can be found floating around in the tornado funnel. Almost all the fatalities from tornadoes are caused by flying debris rather than anything peculiar about the funnel itself.
REHMLee Sandlin. He's a Chicago-based journalist, author of "Storm Kings: The Untold History of America's First Tornado Chasers." And Lee Sandlin -- sorry, Harold Brooks is research meteorologist with NOAA's National Severe Storms Lab in Oklahoma. Thank you both.
SANDLINThank you. This is a pleasure.
REHMAnd thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.