Broadcast media play a critical role in the weather warning process. A broadcast meteorologist's on air coverage during severe weather provides the public with the warning and hazard information verbally and visually. The latter is especially helpful for anyone who may be process information better when he or she can see it presented rather than just hearing it.
On April 26, 1991, the television severe thunderstorm coverage across the Plains was perhaps unprecedented. Many elements of a prototypical severe weather broadcast were present that afternoon and evening, including station chase teams. Viewers in the Wichita market were even treated to a non-weather news crew from KSNW being chased by a tornado themselves. The video taken by the KSNW crew showed them racing down the Kansas Turnpike near El Dorado before finally being forced to stop and take cover beneath the girders of a highway overpass. That remains one of the most famous tornado videos of all time and also led to considerable scrutiny regarding overpasses as a safe location to take cover in the path of a tornado. (Following the May 3, 1999, tornado outbreak, when two people died while seeking shelter in a tornado, a study was done to show why overpasses should not be relied on to provide safe shelter during a tornado.)
These days, severe weather coverage would not be complete without a broadcast meteorologist "drawing" an arrow on the radar display to project when the worst part of a storm would arrive at certain locations along its path. Prior to April 26, 1991, these on air computer "pathcasts" had never been done. The pathcast debuted the evening of April 26, 1991, on KOTV in Tulsa. Newspaper accounts in the following days credited the pathcast with providing considerable warning to individuals who were in the path of dangerous storms.
Note: The following article on the television weather coverage the evening of April 26, 1991, in the Tulsa media market appeared in the Tuesday, April 30, 1991, issue of the Tulsa World.
State Gets First Glimpse of High-Tech Tracking Gear
Tornado Rivaled Footage From Desert Storm
By Rita Sherrow, World Television Editor
Friday night’s television coverage of the weather in Oklahoma rivaled the networks’ coverage of the start of the Persian Gulf War.
But the emphasis on Tulsa’s TV stations was on storms and killer tornadoes right in our own backyard.
That coverage included one station’s chief meteorologist reporting from within a mile of a killer tornado, another station using a new computer program that helps pinpoint the projected path of the storm and news crews from the third affiliate spread out all over central and northeastern Oklahoma.
The most dramatic footage of meeting a tornado up close and personal came from KJRH Chief Meteorologist Gary Shore. He, camera person Denise Dotts and a producer from Channel 2 were following “tornado tracker” Howie Bluestein from the University of Oklahoma and a research team from the National Severe Storms lab in Norman during what turned out to be “the biggest outbreak (of storms) in this part of the world since 1974,” Shore said.
“We had planned this project a week ahead with the people in Norman and had gone to Texas (to track storms) with them on Thursday,” he said. “When we went out at 1 p.m. Friday, what we ended up seeing was one of the largest tornadoes in the state of Oklahoma.
“We followed it because it turned from a research project into a warning situation for our part of the area.”
Using Doppler radar at the studio, a portable Doppler carried by the OU crew and information from weather spotters, the vans carrying the KJRH crew and the OU crew saw what started out as a small tornado turn into an F-4 rated funnel within 20 minutes.
While the OU team set up their equipment three-quarters of a mile away from the tornado, near Billings, to take measurements, Shore said he and his crew decided to move at least a mile away and out of danger, he said.
“The point of our thing was to get as close as we could and still be safe,” he said. “I really did not feel that I was in danger. The winds were gusting 50 to 75 miles per hour but the 200-mile-an-hour winds in the actual storm were to the north of us … It was an incredible experience.”
But Shore warned viewers – “Don’t try this at home.”
“I knew where I was in relation to that storm and other storms. The people in Wichita (who shot the underpass video) didn’t have the experience and knowledge about how those beasts develop to know that they just needed to get out of the way. Stopping was not the thing to do.”
Shore said his fear came later while tracking another storm that produced baseball-sized hail, which smashed the vehicle’s windshield.
The experience of watching the tornadoes and combining all the technical and human knowledge gave the KJRH weather team time to provide warnings for their viewers, he said.
“We gave a lot of warning with as much precision as is really possible because we were able to say ‘it is heading toward your direction’ up to an hour ahead. This was a real team effort.”
Shore said the “only way to be precise in forecasting the path of a tornado is to gather all the information.”
“All experts tell us that with this new program, used (in Tulsa) by another station, you can get an estimate of where it (the tornado-producing part of the storm) is going to be, but we don’t want people to think that that is the last word.”
For Jim Giles, chief meteorologist for KOTV, Channel 6, Friday was “exciting.” He got to give viewers the chance to see his new “pathfinder” weather program assist in the identification of the storm’s path.
“It’s probably more amazing than we ever thought,” he said.
The computer software program, written by Channel 6 employee David Oldham of Tulsa, was put into service only the day before the storms hit.
To work, emphasized Giles, the pathfinder must have “an excellent radar system that isn’t subject to ground clutter and a well-qualified, experienced meteorologist.”
The pathfinder shows viewers a projection of the storm’s path, and a printout with towns and the times the storm will reach that location superimposed over a regular Doppler color weather map.
“In this storm situation – and, again we have not gone back yet and sorted through everything – my initial feeling is that in virtually every case where the tornadoes caused damage we had within 35-40 minutes lead time throughout the history of the storm,” he said.
“I have never heard of a case in which a tornadic storm was tracked and communities were warned 30 to 40 minutes ahead of time. I don’t know if that has ever happened,” Giles said.
This software isn’t on the market yet, said Giles. There is a similar program in use in Oklahoma City but no “one except those watching TV Friday night know anything about how pathfinder works and how well it works. That is newsworthy all around the world and especially to those that have to deal with tornadoes.”
During Friday’s storm outbreak, KTUL Chief Meteorologist Travis Meyer said everyone was amazed by what they saw on the Doppler radar.
“In the 10 years I’ve been here, Friday’s system rates as the most identifiable storm that I have ever seen.”
Beginning in early afternoon, Meyer dispatched weather-alert crews to central Oklahoma and they were among the first people on the scene of the Garber twister. He sent another crew up to Osage County and another to Bartlesville to catch the storms as they developed.
“We kept one crew moving along with the storms,” he said, “but they were out of the storm proper. I don’t think it’s worth a loss of life to follow a storm.”
The concurrent storm tracks made the situation extremely stressful, Meyer said.
“If this had been the only storm (the one in Osage), it would have been a very unique situation, but with two and trying to keep all the data current plus talking with our weather spotters … It was hectic.”
“I told my wife, ‘See you sometime Saturday night.’ I told her that on Wednesday,” said Meyer. “We knew something was going to happen. But you can’t determine where until the storm forms.”
The massive storm system produced damage to more than 200 homes and four weather-related deaths in Oklahoma.
“Some of these tornadoes spent a long time on the ground, up to 40 minutes. And the average tornado is on the ground for only 10 minutes … These giant tornadoes happen very very seldom, at most, maybe 10 percent of the time.
“The new weather tracking device is nice, but these tornadoes were taking some right-angle turns. It’s still up to the person to see what they see on the radar and react,” said Meyer.
Note: The following excerpt was taken from an editorial on the television weather coverage the evening of April 26, 1991, in the Tulsa media market and appeared in the Tuesday, April 30, 1991, issue of the Tulsa World.
In the Wake of the Storm
By Jay Cronley
There were several memorable aspects of the television coverage, beginning with the film KJRH-2 got west of here. Tornado film can seem impersonal because it's either of another state or because you see it the day after. But the day-of film that KJRH shot will make it hard for anybody to ignore a warning again. Whereas sticking the meteorologist in the corner of a tornado shot sounds corny, it wasn't here - seeing the glasses knocked from one's face a mile from a storm qualifies as drama.
The other memorable bit of coverage was on KOTV-6. It consisted of a new computerized tracking device superimposed over a map showing a tornado's estimated time of arrival, like a train: Attention, a tornado will be picking up anybody stupid enough to be outside in Mounds at 11:02 p.m.
By Tom Bennett, (current) KOTV Weather Producer
This date and anniversary is a big deal to many folks, including myself. I was still in college and was freelance chasing on that day. I was able to get video of the F4 tornado earlier in the day near the town of Red Rock in north central Oklahoma. En route back to channel 6 [KOTV in Tulsa], a small tornado crossed in front of my car on state highway 18 NW of Yale, OK in Payne County. This tornado would later strengthen and hit Westport and Skiatook. I chose to not chase this storm but to get my video back to the TV station for the 10 pm news. This decision made a huge impact on Jim Giles' decision to offer me a full time job at KOTV a short time after this event. I now live in Skiatook and have many friends who remember or were even in the tornado on that Friday evening. Since channel 6 debuted a new software device on this date, there was an enormous amount of attention and press following the event about KOTV and their new "Pathfinder". A childhood friend of mine named Dave Oldham wrote the software while attending OU. The program gave arrival times to towns and cities with a projection. The program was in development leading up to this event. The decision was made to use the program as an overlay to Doppler 6 radar, which was located at that time in Sand Springs, near the KOTV tower. The tornado that later hit Skiatook and Oologah, passed within 5 miles north of the radar. The debris ball could be seen in the radar data near the hook of the storm. I remember Jim Giles' saying, "this type of an event only occurs in a metro area, as tornado prone as Tulsa, about once every 10 to 20 years." Besides Catoosa, April 24th 1993, the Tulsa metro has not had a tornado rated above F3 in Tulsa county. As a meteorologist with News on 6 still to this day some 20 years later and as the GM of Jim Giles' Safe Rooms, I still hear from people about how much that night still keeps them awake at night and how they cannot believe that more people were not killed by that storm. Especially amazing was that just 125 miles NW of Tulsa, Andover, KS, was hit by an F5 on that same day, and they lost 24 people to the storm, while only 1 person was killed by the Skiatook or Oologah tornadoes as the Skiatook tornado passed near Westport, SW of Skiatook. No one was killed in Skiatook or Oologah. One lady was killed in her car as another tornado hit north of Bartlesville, near Copan. This is the same parent storm that I had video of earlier in the day from Red Rock. Coming full circle, I work again with Travis Meyer now and 20+ years ago. I used everything I learned from my internship with Travis while back in high school to chase on this historic date.