St. Louis Public Library Archives/AP
People stand near a demolished church in St. Louis after it was hit by a tornado that killed hundreds of people on May 27, 1896.
People stand near a demolished church in St. Louis after it was hit by a tornado that killed hundreds of people on May 27, 1896. St. Louis Public Library Archives/AP
The recent tornadic destruction and loss of lives across the United States echoes another era more than 100 years ago — a time when humans began trying to outwit and even defeat tornadoes.
In the 1880s, American newspapers were peppered with reports of deadly tornadoes all across the nation. Nearly 100 people were killed by a storm in south Missouri. Another 22 died in a Mississippi disaster. Forty more were killed in Texas and Iowa. More than 300 died from tornadoes in 1882.
And in 1884, the New York Times reported, an unparalleled series of tornado-laden storms cut across eight states — Illinois, Kentucky, Mississippi, Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina — at the same time. Some 800 people were killed, 2,500 injured and 10,000 buildings were razed.
Over the next 20 years, several enterprising people devised large-scale schemes to thwart tornadoes in their paths. Apparently, none of them worked.
But the intense national focus on the treacherous characteristics of tornadoes eventually led to a greater understanding of the natural forces — and greater respect for and appreciation of their powerful malevolence.
Interest in New World tornadoes began in July 1643 when John Winthrop, governor of Massachusetts and an avid weather watcher, gave an eyewitness account of an abrupt gust of wind that moved a meeting house and felled a tree — killing a passerby.
Though this is the first known report of a tornado in America, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the government didn't mount a serious study of tornadoes until the 1880s.
In 1884 — using information gathered from the eight-state onslaught mentioned above — Sgt. John P. Finley of the U.S. Army Signal Corps compiled 15 rules for early tornado forecasting. The meteorologically technical checklist included "increasing wind velocities" and "increasing high humidity" in certain quadrants of "a well-defined low pressure area."
Fearing mass panic, however, the Army forbade the word "tornado" from being used in official weather forecasts. According to NOAA's History of Tornado Forecasting, the ban lasted until 1938.
But the tornadoes kept coming.
In May 1896, deadly twisters cut destructive swaths across parts of the United States. In northern Texas, for instance, a cyclonic storm killed 200 people and in St. Louis, a tornado killed more than 450 people, injured another 1,000 and caused millions of dollars in property damage. More killer tornadoes attacked Kansas and Illinois.
The New York Times reported that whole towns in central and western Missouri were wiped out by the St. Louis tornado. A bridge across the Mississippi River in St. Louis was ripped downstream and most of the small boats were sunk. "Telephone and telegraph wires were down and the cities were in total darkness all night, except for the flare from houses which had caught fire."
In the city of St. Louis, "720 street blocks were a mass of ruins and scarcely a building in the path of the storm escaped injury," the paper reported. "In East St. Louis the devastation was as great as in St. Louis proper. Fire added to the destruction and as the streets were littered with rubbish, the Fire Department was helpless."
Turpin's Tornado Extinguisher
In the aftermath of the St. Louis storm, news reports of new anti-tornado technology — mostly theoretical — began cropping up. For example:
* A Protective Wall. In June 1896, David Wechsler of the San Francisco Chronicle proposed "mitigating the force of tornadoes by means of artificial walls." Because "modern lofty steel-frame" buildings often withstood tornadic winds, Wechsler reasoned, perhaps it would be "possibly practicable to build great windbreakers to the west of big cities that should forever guarantee them from such dire misfortune as that which overtook St. Louis; in other words to wall modern cities as a matter of protection against the weather as old-time towns were walled against human foes."
* Turpin's Tornado Extinguisher. A French inventor named Turpin designed a metal tower — 125 feet high with long metal, disc-tipped arms. As reported in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1897, the idea was to place an immense cylinder filled with some highly explosive material, such as picric acid-based melinite. When the tornado struck the windmillish arms, they would revolve — producing friction that would ignite the melinite. The resulting explosion would produce "an enormous displacement of gas," Turpin predicted, and disrupt the rotary motion of the storm.
* Conducting Poles. In 1901 the Post-Dispatch, reflecting readers' frightful preoccupation with tornadoes, reported on an Ohio professor who proposed to weaken tornadoes by erecting "pointed metallic conducting poles along water courses" and other strategic spots. The poles would work like lightning rods and redirect the overcharged electricity produced by violent storms.
Eventually, as more information was gathered on tornadoes, the attempts to prevent them waned. Governmental groups turned their attention to severe weather forecasting.
In 1951, the Severe Weather Warning Center was created under the aegis of the U.S. Air Force. Other weather analysis offices followed. The advent of the computer and the Doppler radar network enabled military and civilian forecasters to make more precise predictions.
It's possible that with new technology, humans will re-engage in the battle against tornadoes. But for now, says Katja Friedrich, a professor in the Department of Atmospheric and Ocean Sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder, "you cannot modify the weather or tornadoes to be less devastating and violent or modify the tornado path. I am sure that there are people trying to do that, but there is no scientific evidence that this is possible."
Usually, Friedrich explains, tornadoes form very quickly, have short life spans of several minutes and produce a relatively small footprint. Most tornadoes form in supercell thunderstorms. There are thousands of supercells throughout the U.S. every year, but only a small number form tornadoes.
So the only way to deal with tornadoes is to educate people on their dangers and to develop systems to warn people to take cover. Forecasters have become pretty reliable at giving a day or two of warning for conditions with a very high risk of tornadoes. Unfortunately, Friedrich says, the actual warning time for tornadoes is currently only 10 to 15 minutes.
In 2009 and 2010 the National Science Foundation and NOAA sponsored a large field campaign, VORTEX2, to study the formation of tornadoes, Friedrich says. The goal was to collect measurements within tornadoes to help researchers understand the formation and lifetime of deadly storms. "The detailed data set will also help improve numerical models so that maybe in the future we will able to forecast tornadoes and give people a warning time of more than 10 to 15 minutes," she says.
With the proliferation of Internet websites and social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook — along with traditional sources like weather radio, radio and TV — the weather service is now able to spread a warning more efficiently, Friedrich says. "By educating people on what to do in case of a tornado and building tornado shelters," she adds, "we can certainly minimize the deaths."