Thursday, May 9, 2013

Book Review: "Storm Kings" by Lee Sandlin

I have been a SKYWARN volunteer storm spotter for the National Weather Service since 2009.  As such, I am constantly striving to learn more about severe weather, and especially tornadoes.  Until recently, however, I was largely ignorant of the history of severe weather forecasting--not just the academic side, but the human side as well.  Although there have been other books that have gone into specific severe weather outbreaks, there have been few if any books that would provide a broad and readable overview of this important subject.

The recently-released book, "Storm Kings," by Chicago-based author and essayist Lee Sandlin, steps in to fill this gap.  From the first recorded severe weather outbreaks of the 1600's to the Joplin, Missouri disaster of 2011, Mr. Sandlin does an excellent job of bringing the human side of severe weather forecasting, and especially tornado forecasting, home to the general reader.  Ignoring the temptation to veer off into an abstract study of the complex mathematics and computer models that are so prevalent in today's weather forecasting, Sandlin wisely chooses to emphasize the human, practical side of meteorology.

Perhaps nowhere in the entire book is this made as clear as in the story of Ernest J. Fawbush and, especially, Robert C. Miller, the team who made the first successful tornado forecast in March of 1948 at Tinker Air Force Base, near Oklahoma City.  Another example is that of the late Ted Fujita, of the University of Chicago.  None of these men put any real stock in theory, nor in computers, when it came to severe weather forecasting.  Yet the work that they carried out has long been considered to be of fundamental importance in providing severe weather information that has helped save countless human lives, prevented innumerable injuries, and reduced or even prevented property damage down through the years.

By far the saddest part of this book is the repeated exposure of the darker side of human nature which Sandlin furnishes in "Storm Kings."  Yet, in order to put the subject matter into proper perspective, Mr. Sandlin frankly, and rightly, exposes the numerous instances of arrogance, infighting, backbiting, and politicking on both sides during the long history of weather forecasting in general, and severe weather forecasting in particular.  The display of mutual disdain, arrogance, and outright snobbery between the military and civilian weather services during the time when Messrs. Fawbush and Miller were doing their groundbreaking work is especially disgusting to this reviewer.  Yet, in order to fully understand and appreciate their accomplishments, their flaws, as well as their virtues, simply have to be made clear to the reader, and Mr. Sandlin has done just that, without hesitation or apology of any kind.

Overall, "Storm Kings" should be one of the first books that the prospective storm spotter, or storm chaser, should add to their library.   Even those who just want a general understanding of severe weather, and those who deal with it on a daily basis, will find this book well worth the investment.

"Storm Kings:  The Untold History of America's First Tornado Chasers," by Lee Sandlin.  (New York: Pantheon Books, 2013.)  ISBN:  978-0-307-37852-1.  $26.95 hardback.  Also available in Kindle and Audible Audio formats from

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Fritz Borum: An Unsung Pioneer

The year 2013 marks the 65th anniversary of the operational tornado forecast. It is not so well known, however, that it also marks the 65th anniversary of the first successful implementation of a large-scale tornado safety plan, particularly at a government facility. While the two men responsible for the actual forecast, Robert Miller and Ernest Fawbush, have been justly celebrated and memorialized for their work, another individual played a part in this dramatic sequence, which, while much less celebrated, was just as important in reducing property damage and injuries, and, especially, saving human lives. The purpose of this article is to remedy this injustice, and give this individual the acclaim that this writer feels is his rightful due. His name: Major General Fred Sydney Borum, better known to his friends as “Fritz” Borum.

The events in question took place at Tinker Air Force Base, not far from what is now Will Rogers World Airport, near Oklahoma City, in March of 1948. At 10 P.M. on the evening of March 20, a large, ferocious tornado funnel began a 7-minute trip across the base, damaging or destroying some 100 aircraft. One such plane, a B-29 bomber, weighing in excess of 68 tons, was picked up by the twister and flung more than 100 yards away. A C-54 was flipped on its back as if it had been made of paper. Winds speeds on the ground as high as 78 miles an hour were recorded before the base’s weather instruments broke. (Local weathermen later projected wind speeds in excess of 100 MPH.) Heavy hail, torrential rains, and continuous lightning only served to make matters even worse. Although only 6 persons were reported as having been injured, Miller (in an unpublished manuscript entitled “The Unfriendly Sky”) bluntly stated that, “The control tower personnel were badly cut [by flying glass and debris].”

It was at this point that Fritz Borum came into the picture. A respected expert in the field of air materiel management, Borum had been in command of Tinker AFB since July 1945. He had only recently returned from a 3-month assignment in which he had organized and supervised the care and maintenance of the aircraft involved in the Berlin Airlift. He had grown up in Oklahoma, and was actually more familiar with Oklahoma's violent weather patterns than Miller and Fawbush, both of whom had been assigned to Tinker's weather station only weeks before. An avid amateur weather buff in his own right, Borum was a radar expert as well. Miller, in fact, stated: “He was very interested and most knowledgeable when it came to weather. He was highly proficient in the operation of our local radar and loved to watch the scope during thunderstorm outbreaks.”

With such a background as this, it was not surprising that, at a formal inquiry the next day, General Borum thoroughly grilled Miller and Fawbush as to why they had not in fact forecast a tornado. When he was told that forecasting tornadoes was impossible, and that the U.S. Weather Bureau had expressly forbidden even the use of the word “tornado” in any official weather statement since the 1870's, Borum all but went up in smoke. He forcefully rejected any and all such notions, and specifically directed Miller and Fawbush to begin research into the subject without delay.

While the two forecasters were conducting their research, in compliance with the formal directive of the board of inquiry, Borum got together with his staff to prepare a Base Tornado Safety Plan to help reduce or minimize injuries and property damage in the event of any future tornado or other severe weather outbreaks. Within three days, the new plan was complete and ready to put into effect.

As it turned out, Borum and his staff completed their work none too soon, for on the morning of March 25th, Miller and Fawbush reported that developing weather patterns in the central Oklahoma basin were becoming frighteningly similar to those that had existed only five days before. Borum immediately went to the Tinker weather station to discuss the situation with the two men. After looking at the images on the radar scope, Borum's initial response was to direct Miller and Fawbush to issue what today would be called a Severe Thunderstorm Watch. In conjunction with this forecast, the initial phases of the Base Tornado Safety Plan were implemented. The General then returned home, asking to be informed of further developments.

Those developments were not long in coming, for by 2 o'clock in the afternoon, a squall line had developed, and became increasingly dangerous and intense. Borum was notified, and immediately returned to the weather station. He spent ten long minutes watching the scope and discussing the squall line's movement and intensity. Then, suddenly, Borum shot to his feet, looked the two forecasters in the eye, and asked, “Are you going to issue a tornado forecast?”

Fawbush and Miller, realizing that their careers could well be on the line, made a desperate attempt to back out. They pointed out that the odds against a second tornado hitting the base in such a short period of time were less than 1 in 20 million. Borum, however, was in no mood to accept such hemming and hawing. His face turning brick red with anger, his vocabulary liberally seasoned with military expletives, Borum yelled at the top of his lungs, “ARE WE GOING TO HAVE ANOTHER TORNADO OR NOT? YES OR NO?”

Swallowing hard, the two men took a deep breath and answered, “Yes, sir, we believe we are.” Borum thereupon ordered them to prepare a tornado forecast for immediate dissemination throughout the base. As they began doing so, they timidly pointed that no one had ever prepared a tornado forecast such as this before. “Fine!” Borum snapped. “You are about to set a precedent!”

Realizing that further arguments would be worse than useless, Fawbush composed the world's first operational tornado forecast—what would be called a Tornado Watch today—and handed it over to Miller, who typed it up and took it to the Base Operations office for immediate distribution. Meanwhile, Borum got on the phone and directed his staff to put all remaining phases of the new Tornado Safety Plan into immediate execution.

Despite its bureaucratic detail, Borum's Tornado Safety Plan can be boiled down into five basic steps, all of which have long since become accepted practice in severe weather safety. First, as many planes as possible were moved into hangars on the Base, the doors and windows of which were then shut. Secondly, all remaining planes on the Base were tied down as securely as possible. Third, all loose objects and equipment were moved indoors and secured. Fourth, all incoming air traffic was diverted away from the Base until further notice. Fifth, and most importantly, all personnel were evacuated to basement shelters and to the lowest floor interior areas of thick, solid, sturdy buildings.

Shortly after his shift ended at 4:45 P.M., Miller left and drove home. Both he and Fawbush felt certain that their careers as weather forecasters were about to go down the drain. So much so, in fact, that Miller later wrote that he actually wondered if he could make a living as a civilian elevator operator!

As it turned out, they needn't have worried, for just before 6 P.M., another tornado formed, striking in almost the exact same place, and following almost exactly the same path, as its predecessor from five days earlier. From his back porch, Borum watched what he later described as a radish-shaped, dirty yellow colored funnel tear through his base like a gigantic buzz-saw, only to dissipate five minutes later.

When all was said and done, the final damage estimate was an additional $6 million on top of the $10 million in damage from 5 days before. 84 aircraft, primarily B-29's and P-47's, were hit by the twister, 35 of them damaged beyond repair. Hundreds of yards of steel planking, used as a parking surface for the aircraft, were ripped off the ground and crumpled. Winds on the ground at the edge of the storm were measured at approximately 80 miles per hour, accompanied by “moderate” hail.

Despite all of this carnage, there was, in fact, considerable good news to report. For one thing, the final damage total was an incredible 40% LESS than the damage total from only five days previous. Even more important was the fact that only one minor injury was reported—a stark testament to the wisdom of General Borum's Tornado Safety Plan, which had now officially passed its baptism of fire.

As was characteristic of him, Fritz Borum receded into the background, allowing Fawbush and Miller to receive the glory they rightly deserved. To the end of their lives, however, both men, and Miller especially, repeatedly stated that they felt that Borum should have received as much credit as they had. After all, they pointed out to anyone who would listen, it was Borum who had pushed the two men into making the historic tornado prediction in the first place. Even more important than that was the fact that it was Borum and his staff who had devised the Tornado Safety Plan for Tinker Air Force Base, which, in turn, had produced such a spectacular reduction in property damage, and, especially, in injuries to base personnel. Thus, Borum had played just as vital a role in the development of severe weather safety practices and procedures as Fawbush and Miller had in developing techniques for predicting severe weather.

Fritz Borum retired from the Air Force in June of 1954, at the age of 62. He spent his last years as a vice president of Liberty National Bank and Trust Company in Oklahoma City, and played a major role in the development of what is now Will Rogers World Airport. He died of bone cancer on October 25, 1978, in Cocoa Beach, and was buried, with appropriate honors, at the Florida Memorial Gardens in Cocoa, Florida.