The fascinating image above is from John Brasher’s excellent blog about the tornado. “We’ve Been Hit” By Bill Murray May 27, 1973 was a Sunday, the day before Memorial Day. The peak of the severe weather season had passed for Alabama. Most of the state’s tornadoes occur in March and April, with a secondary peak in November. By May, severe weather has generally retreated northward out of the state, into the Midwest and the traditional tornado alley of the Plains states. But weathermen knew that they had a late season severe weather situation on their hands that Sunday morning. The storm system they had been tracking for three days was finally getting ready to move into the eastern states after days of severe weather in the Plains. When the Sunday Birmingham News hit driveways and newspaper boxes across the city, headlines told the tragic story of Keefeton, Oklahoma, which had been hit by a devastating tornado the day before that had left three people dead. Jonesboro, Arkansas had also been hard hit.
Just three days before, a truly historic tornado had occurred on May 24th in Oklahoma. It was a strong tornado, but it is not renowned because it caused an extraordinary amount of damage. It did not cause a huge death toll. It did not strike without warning. But, it was one of the most studied tornadoes in history. Teams of meteorologists were tracking the thunderstorm that produced the Union City tornado with their new experimental Doppler radar in Norman. Little did they know when that day started that they would capture the entire life cycle of a tornado with their Doppler radar and with chase teams in the field. When they went back and studied the data that had been stored on magnetic tape, they realized for the first time that the tornado’s circulation formed aloft well before the funnel descended to the ground. An incredible warning tool had been identified. Early that morning, a surface low pressure system was over Missouri. Strong low levels winds blowing in a counter clockwise direction around the low were bringing warm, moist air as far northward as the Ohio Valley. Dewpoints were in the upper 60s to near 70F that morning across North and Central Alabama, not unusual for late May, but when the fuel of that warm, moist air met the spark of the approaching cold front being propelled southeastward by the surface low, the inevitable explosion occurred.
The air had that feel to it. It felt like trouble to John Brasher, a new newspaper reporter with the Centreville Press. He had only been with the paper for two weeks. John was fascinated with weather, and thought it would be a good day to journal the severe weather operations that would be going on at the Weather Service Meteorological Observatory station between Centreville and Brent. John left his apartment in Centreville and headed down highway 25. He had a fairly new car that he was pretty proud of and he rolled down the windows to enjoy the late spring warmth. He turned to the radio to WVOK, the Mighty 690 out of Birmingham, to keep tabs on the weather. He took a right in downtown Brent and passed the famed Twix ‘n Tween barbecue restaurant. Alabama was known for good barbecue, and the Twix n’Tween was a legend, and still is to this day. John took another left in downtown Brent and headed out of town. He traveled southwest for several miles until highway 25 split and he turned right to follow it. The station sat on a hill eight miles southwest of the town of Brent. It seemed an add location for a powerful network radar. It fact, the radar locations had been spaced carefully on a grid so that much of the country east of the Rockies had continuous radar coverage. It wasn’t that the location was special, it was just at the right place on the grid. The one story metal building had been built by a local landlord and leased to the U.S. government. The front of the structure was emblazoned with a no-nonsense set of large letters that proclaimed it was part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, with smaller letters underneath that read National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Weather Service. The large fiberglass radar dome towered over the station, like a huge golfball on a tee. The dome protected the large antenna from wind, freezing rain and hail. He pulled into the parking lot, noticing another fairly new car that belonged to Dale Black, the Meteorologist in Charge for the facility. Next to it was the old fishing truck of the other meteorologist on duty, Bob Coe. John walked in the building, which was unlocked and saw Bob manning a Teletype machine. He was pounding out a coded radar report on the active thunderstorms that were blitzing the northern half of the state. The weathermen had been on alert for severe weather all day because of the very unstable conditions. A large black and white clock was centered on wall behind his World-War II era Teletype, surrounded by dozens of clips that suspended important papers on pegboard. Bob wasn’t an especially large man, but he dwarfed the small but sturdy rolling chair that sat on the linoleum floor. He was wearing blue jeans and a short sleeved white shirt, his big hands furiously typing on the tiny keyboard of the Teletype machine, with its tall, raised keys. His thick, black horn rimmed glasses were focused on a copyholder to the right of the machine. Dale had hand drawn the ghostly green radar echoes on a plastic map overlay with a grease pencil so that Bob could transfer that information into the coded reports that would describe what the Centreville meteorologists were seeing. These RAREP (radar report) codes were called SDs. They were transmitted by Teletype to the Radar Analysis and Development Unit in Kansas City. This group had been formed to figure out how to get the critical data from dozens of different types of radars being used to track weather across the U.S. The data was collected to prepare a Teletype summary of the radar echoes over the country and to create a graphical radar summary chart from all the data. This visual information was as good as it got in 1973 and 1974 for meteorologists in the field that were not co-located with their radar. The practice of locating radars away from the meteorologists making the warnings seems illogical. But the radars had effective ranges and it was important that they be separated appropriately to provide the maximum coverage. The radar stations generally had a couple of other duties. They were responsible for making regular surface observations and launching weather balloons twice each day, at noon and midnight Greenwich Mean Time, the same time that hundreds of other stations around the world go through the same exercise for a snapshot of the atmosphere. Greenwich Mean Time, or Universal Time, is the time on the prime meridian, which runs through Greenwich, England. It is also called Zulu time sometimes because the designation “z” is placed behind the four digits corresponding to the time in twenty four hour format. For example, noon Greenwich Mean Time is displayed as 1200Z. Midnight is 0000Z. 3 p.m. would be 1500Z. For time zones in the United States, GMT is calculated by adding four to eight hours to the local time, depending on which time zone the observer is located in and whether the location observes Daylight Saving Time. In Alabama, which is in the Central time zone, Greenwich Mean Time is five hours ahead of local time when there is Daylight Saving Time and six hours when Standard Time is being observed. So, 6 p.m. CDT, or 18:00 using the 24 hour clock, is 23:00Z. Confusing. But it is the standard time of meteorologists. You see it in everything they do. Dale was sitting at the WSR-57 radar console in an adjacent darkened room. The equipment looked like it belonged a NASA’s Mission Control, running a Skylab mission. The space station had just been launched on a Saturn V rocket on May 14th and was in orbit. In fact, the radar equipment actually pre-dated the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space programs. In the middle of the console was the large, round Position Plan Indicator (PPI) screen that looked more like a porthole on the side of a destroyer than an output on the first “modern” weather radar. The radar operator was silhouetted against the green glow of the PPI. A bright line from the center of the screen out to the edge swept slowly around the display, tracing the sweep of the twelve foot antenna as it send out 410,000 watts of power across the Central Alabama sky. Dale was manually cranking the antenna’s tilt up so that he could see how tall some of the storms were. They were pushing 60,000 feet, the height of their towers indicating the strength of their updrafts and the corresponding potential severity of the storms. In fact, the updrafts weren’t stopping until they reached the tropopause, basically the ceiling of our atmosphere, fanning out into the familiar anvils you see with thunderheads. Some of them were even barreling through this barrier as well, a phenomenon called “overshooting cloud tops”. From above, it looked like a
cauliflower had poked up through the smooth top of the anvil’s cirrus cloud.
In Birmingham, J.B. Elliott was worried. North and Central Alabama had been belted by round after round of severe weather all afternoon. With so many storms all day, he knew that many people believed the worst was over. It is why he had specifically crafted a statement that directly addressed the issue and told people that the situation was not over. But how many people had actually heard the bulletin. There was no Weatheradio. Television stations gave very little coverage. It was getting late in the day, so radio stations were getting ready to stop live programming and go to low power. Elliott was especially concerned about two storms based on his discussions with Dale and Bob in Centreville. One was on a direct course that would let it affects the Birmingham area, the largest city in the state. The other suspicious storm was crossing the Mississippi border near Meridian. The National Weather Service Office in Montgomery issued a severe thunderstorm warning at 6:20 p.m. for Sumter, Greene and Hale counties in West Alabama, since those counties were in their area of responsibility. They had no idea that a tornado had already was already touching down near Demopolis in Marengo County even as they were writing the warning. Lead time: zero. The idea of lead time was just beginning to take hold in the National Weather Service. Today, the NWS averages over eleven minutes of lead time for tornado warnings. But in 1973-74, communications systems made it difficult to confirm that tornadoes were actually on the ground. There was no Doppler radar to help forecasters discriminate small scale features that told them what was going on in a storm. Large warnings had to be crafted when forecasters got a report or believed that a tornado was imminent.
At the radar station in Centreville/Brent, John Brasher was photographing Dale Black as he worked the radar like a madman, seeking out hook echoes, plotting directions and distances, drawing rough polygons showing the most likely paths of the possible tornadoes and annotating the screen so that the forecasters in would see his notes. Black looked at the storm near Demopolis. It had a very distinct hook echo. He took the grease pencil and drew the fan of the projected path that he thought that the storm would follow. It looked just like the polygons that National Weather Service forecasters draw with their computers today to issued Storm Based Warnings. Black showed his projected track to John Brasher, who was looking over Black’s shoulder. “If that storm holds together, it will pass right over us,” Black told the reporter. At the National Weather Service Offices in Birmingham and Montgomery, the NAWAS squawked loudly. The NAWAS, or National Warning System, was a giant party line phone system that connected National Weather Service Offices, State Trooper Posts, Sherriff’s Offices, Police Departments and Civil Defense Agencies across the state. Party line meant that everyone could hear everyone on the circuit. The National Weather Service offices had loudspeakers in their main areas so that everyone could hear what was being said. About 6:20, the State Trooper post at Demopolis reported a tornado on the ground just north of Demopolis. Based on this report and what Dale Black was telling them, the Montgomery staff would upgrade the warning to a tornado warning. The tornado continued northeast over sparsely populated country. Lead time to touchdown: zero. At the radar station, the two meteorologists and Brasher walked outside. They just wanted to get a feel for the conditions. A strong southeast wind was blowing at 25-30 mph. It was the inflow into the huge storm. “That feels like the air from a blast furnace,” commented Black. Indeed, the inflow was strong, very warm and humid. The air had a sweet smell, like that of freshly cut hay, Brasher would later report. “I’ve never felt conditions like that before or since, “ said Brasher. “It is something that you don’t forget.” Up the road in Birmingham, J.B. heard that same report on the NAWAS. He knew that when the storms got into Tuscaloosa and Bibb County, they would be his problem. But the storm coming into northern Jefferson County was a more immediate problem. There were reports of funnels clouds, which are tornadoes that are not yet touching the ground from law enforcement and amateur radio operators. There were so many reports of funnel clouds, tornadoes and damage that it was impossible to warn for individual storms. At 6:50 p.m., J.B. pulled the trigger on a blanket tornado warning for eleven counties downstream of the line of strong storms, including Jefferson County, where Birmingham is located. These sorts of blanket warnings are unheard of today, but the technology of the day wouldn’t allow more pinpoint alerts. J.B. didn’t know that his Jefferson County tornado was already on the ground as well. Folks in places like Centerpoint and Palmderdale would get a few precious minutes of lead time. But for people in the Robinwood Trailer Park in Tarrant, just north of downtown Birmingham where the tornado touched down: the lead time was zero.
Back in the radar stations, Dale was furiously working the console and hotline while Dale manned the Teletype. They were tracking two tornadic storms, one moving across northern portions of the largest metropolitan area in Alabama. The meteorologists were providing a virtual play to J.B. and the forecasters in Birmingham and Montgomery on both storms. They tracked the storm as it rolled over the town of Greensboro in Hale County. One person would die there and another 72 were injured by the powerful tornado, which would eventually be estimated to be an F4 on the brand new Fujita-Pearson Scale that rated tornadoes on a scale from F0-F5 based on wind estimates from damage indicators. The process of officially rating tornadoes according to the scale actually began in 1973. Allen Pearson and Dr. Theodore Fujita, from the University of Chicago, had invented the scale in 1971 while enjoying a bottle of sake together. The scale allowed tornadoes to be rated and compared in terms of intensity, path length and path width. Eventually, the numbers for path length and width would fall away. Eventually, historical tornadoes all the way back to 1880 would be rated as part of a national database of the destructive storms put together by The Tornado Project. Around 7:15 p.m., John was watching Bob Cole type a message about the hook echo over northern Jefferson County and photographing him when the two men’s ears began to pop. Cole looked at Brasher and said, “Uh oh.” They bolted for the hallway. Black met them there. Their ears were popping because of the sudden change in atmospheric pressure. They ran to the lobby to look outside. Not a good decision, since the front face of the building was all glass. Outside, all they could see was debris swirling through the air. They only had seconds to dive into an adjacent office and crawl under desks. Brasher remembers being pelted with fine sand. The roof of the building was instantly peeled away and the entire ordeal was over in seconds. The three men were unscathed. The power to the building was out and the generator had kicked on for the radar unit. Problem was, there was no radar. The radar dome and antenna lay on the ground, less than 20 feet from having crushed the men in the now roofless building. Dale Black screamed into the hotline to the Weather Service Office, “Birmingham, this is Centreville. We’ve been hit!” The message scared the daylights out of J.B. Elliott. He started frantically typing a new warning for Bibb County. ZCZC NNNN 8 230020 BULLETIN TORNADO WARNING IMMEDIATE BROADCAST REQUESTED. NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE BIRMINGHAM AL 720 PM CDT…SUNDAY MAY 27 1973 A TORNADO WARNING IS INEFFECT FOR BIBB COUNTY UNTIL 830 PM CDT TONIGHT. A TORNADO PARTIALLY DESTROYED THE CENTERVILLE RADAR STATION AT ABOUT 615 PM THIS EVENING. PERSONS IN BIBCOUNTY SHOULD TAKE PRECAUTIONS IF THREATENING CONDITIONS ARE SIGHTED. Intent on hurriedly getting out the message, J.B.’s bulletin had a couple of uncharacteristic typos. He was off by an hour on the time of the tornado strike on the radar, but the important thing was that the warning was on the wire. The reason that the hotline was still working was that the powers that be had the foresight to bury the telephone cables to the site underground. This also allowed Bob Cole to frantically call his family eight miles to the northeast in Brent to tell them to take shelter. They followed his advice and were saved, despite the fact that the tornado destroyed their house. The three men walked outside to inspect the damage to the building. The metal steps that led up to the top of the tower stopped abruptly some thirty feet above the ground. The radome lay in a crumpled heap next to the building. The radar antenna, transmitted and receiver were destroyed. The roof was gone on half of the building. In the parking lot, debris had showered Brasher and Black’s new cars, busting out the windows and damaging them heavily. Cole was quick to point out that his old fishing truck appeared to be unhurt, its window intact and looking no worse for the ordeal. Bob Cole wanted to go and check on his family, who lay in the path of the dangerous storm. Dale told him to go and the two men watched silently as the truck eased from the parking lot and turned on to the highway. As Cole made the turn, the back window of the old truck fell out of its frame and shattered, weakened by the tornado’s winds. The two men standing in the parking looked at each other and could not help but laughing.
While the men found a little humor in their situation, the murderous tornado was no laughing matter as it stayed on the ground continuously for an amazing 133 miles, all the way to Alabama’s highest point, Mt. Cheaha, in the eastern part of the state. A total of seven people were killed, including five in the town of Brent, which was ninety percent destroyed. Nearly two hundred people were injured. In addition to the Brent Tornado, one man died in the Birmingham suburb of CenterPoint, less than three miles from my house.
A young junior from Tuscaloosa High School got a call that Sunday night from some of his friends. He was an avid amateur radio enthusiast who loved storms. In fact, he lived for them. He looked forward to severe weather days and the thrill of watching and tracking them. The call was that help was needed in Bibb County. The town of Brent had been wiped out and ham radio operators were needed to establish communications with relief agencies. He met up with his fellow hams and they made their way down U.S. 82 from Tuscaloosa, heading toward Centreville and Brent. When he arrive din the bombed out town of Brent, he was stunned. There was an eerie, inky darkness that enveloped the landscape, punctuated only by headlights, flashlights, lanterns and the blinking lights of emergency vehicles. It was there that he first smelled that smell. It was an inescapable odor that permeated everything. It was brassy and sulfuric, mixed with the aroma of dirt and the pungent smell of splintered pine trees. To that young high school Junior, James Spann, it was the smell of death. The next day, we would establish communications from a church in Centreville. The event would drive him for the rest of his career.
Severe weather notification has come a long way since 1973. Improvements in warnings, radar, spotting, computing and communication give long lead times for tornadoes. But all that is no good if you don’t get the warning or don’t pay attention to it. MyWARN can be your critical source for precise severe weather warnings delivered to your iPhone wherever you are. Get MyWARN now from the iTunes Store.