DEARTH OF COMMUNICATIONS FOILED WARNING EFFORT IN 1965 TORNADO OUTBREAK
When the Palm Sunday tornado outbreak devastated parts of the Midwest on April 11, 1965, U.S. Weather Bureau meteorologists and weather technicians provided forecasts and notices to the public of approaching severe weather. But because of power outages and limited communications systems, residents of Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio were largely left to fend for themselves.
Today's NOAA National Weather Service officials say a tool well-known today, but virtually nonexistent in 1965 could have saved many of the lives lost in that record-setting outbreak. The nationwide NOAA Weather Radio All-Hazards network would have provided notice of approaching storms despite power outages and loss of telephone lines and other forms of communication.
“Improvements in communications made by the NOAA National Weather Service since the 1965 Palm Sunday tornado outbreak provides one example of how NOAA has worked to meet its mission of protecting lives and property," said Brig. Gen. David L. Johnson, U.S. Air Force (Ret.), director of NOAA's National Weather Service.
There was no weather radio network in 1965, rather just a few transmitters that served the coast and a few population centers. In those days, there were few commercial radio and television stations connected to the weather wire or involved in the warning process. Today, NOAA National Weather Service forecast offices utilize more than 900 NOAA Weather Radio transmitters across the country to ensure severe weather warnings get to the public as quickly as possible.
For several years from the 1950s and 1960s, the weather alert radio network remained a loosely organized arrangement of transmitters. In 1970, the U.S. Weather Bureau was renamed the National Weather Service and placed under the newly-formed National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the U.S. Department of Commerce. The National Weather Service began the task of increasing the number of transmitters around the country until another tornado outbreak in 1974 prompted officials to put a higher priority on enlarging the network.
A Congressionally-directed survey of the 1974 multi-state damage area cited a lack of early warning communications as a weakness in the warning system. Expansion of the NOAA Weather Radio network was seen as the solution.
A January 1975 White House policy statement designated NOAA Weather Radio as the sole government-operated radio system to provide direct warnings into private homes for both natural disasters and nuclear attack. By the end of the 1970s, the NOAA Weather Radio network had grown to include more than 400 transmitters.
The NOAA Weather Radio network was enlarged each year as new transmitters were installed and more of the country was placed under the protective communications umbrella. Still, yet another Palm Sunday tornado outbreak unfolded before the expansion reached its current level.
A Palm Sunday 1994 tornado outbreak in the South caught the attention of the White House when a tornado killed 20 people attending church in Piedmont, Ala. - an area that was not covered by NOAA Weather Radio. Then Vice President Al Gore viewed the ruins of the church and visited with survivors. He subsequently announced an ambitious new approach to expansion of the warning network to cover 95 percent of the U.S. population. Numerous state and civilian agencies and private corporations joined in the public/private partnership to install new transmitters in areas not previously covered.
Today, almost 950 transmitters have allowed the National Weather Service to reach near that 95 percent coverage goal. The agency operates some 947 transmitters in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, the Northern Marianas Islands, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Texas, with its vast stretches of open land, has 63 transmitters spotted around the state. Forty-six transmitters cover the state of Alaska. Kentucky, with its many low-water crossings in the eastern section of the mountainous state, is covered by 37 transmitters, Minnesota has 35 transmitters and Missouri has 33.
By contrast, fewer transmitters are needed to cover the smaller, though heavily populated eastern states. Massachusetts has six transmitters; Connecticut 4; New Jersey 3; Delaware 2 and Rhode Island has 1. New York has 21 transmitters. (NOAA Weather Radio All-Hazards coverage for your state: http://www.nws.noaa.gov/nwr/nwrbro.htm.)
NOAA Weather Radio All-Hazards receivers can be found in a wide variety of costs and functions at electronics outlets. For more on NOAA Weather Radio All-Hazards visit: http://www.nws.noaa.gov/nwr. Receivers can be programmed to receive warnings only for a particular area. An alert tone will waken sleeping residents should storms hit late at night and there are special attachments that allow the deaf and hard-of-hearing to receive storm warnings.
Pat Slattery, NOAA National Weather Service: (816) 891-8914