The History of Tornado Warnings


AMARILLO, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) — It has been 73 years since what is attributed as the first modern tornado warning was issued.

A little known fact is Amarillo played a key role in pioneering the broadcasting of tornado warnings.

Hear more on the history from National Weather Service (NWS) Meteorologist Mike Gittinger above, or read more below.

The First Tornado Warning:

According to the National Weather Service, in 1948, USAF Air Weather Service meteorologists issued the first tornado warnings from Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma. 

“In investigating the incident, Air Force Captain Robert C. Miller and Major Ernest J. Fawbush found several studies and reports on weather conditions associated with tornadoes. They noticed similarities between the March 20 weather pattern and the findings in these reports,” said the National Weather Service Heritage website.

The NWS Heritage site said Miller and Fawbush noticed the weather pattern on March 25, 1948, was very similar to the forecast on the 20th, when the tornado happened.

The two weighed the findings against the possibility of another tornado hitting the same spot. After speaking with the general, he ordered them to issue the nation’s first tornado warning.

A few hours later, the NWS said a tornado touched down and went through the airbase, 100 yards from the track of the March 20 tornado.

“This first tornado forecast was instrumental in advancing the nation’s commitment to protecting the American public and military resources from the dangers caused by natural hazards,” said the NWS Heritage website.

Amarillo’s Role in the Pioneering Broadcast Tornado Warnings:

The NWS said throughout the early days of its history (as the Weather Bureau) severe weather or tornado warnings were not issued. They thought it would panic local populations.

“In fact, the word ‘tornado’ was considered taboo until warnings were first issued,” said the NWS website.

NWS said that policy did not deter Amarillo’s first Meteorologist in Charge, Henry Winburn. In May of 1949, Winburn went on the radio airwaves to warn Amarilloians about a tornado.

NWS Amarillo Meteorologist Mike Gittinger said Winburn was given credit for pioneering broadcast warnings.

“As often is the case for anybody that pioneer something like that, they kind of put themselves out there and he felt that it was worth the risk of whatever backlash there was going to be that he can save some lives,” said Gittinger.

The NWS said an investigation revealed that the local office responded appropriately, especially considering the Weather Bureau policy on warnings. The agency said the local office received letters of commendation from the chief of the bureau and the secretary of commerce.

Winburn did not stop there. He was also involved in the implementation of the first operational weather radars. In 1952, a Radar Storm Detection Unit, which was a modified World War II Navy radar, was installed in Amarillo. Then, in 1961, one of the Weather Bureau’s first network weather radars was commissioned in Amarillo. 

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