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Jeremy Kappell
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Stories from '74: Don Burgess - National Severe Storms Laboratory

Don Burgess was a graduate student working at the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, OK on April 3, 1974. He would later become responsible for the implementation of the NEXRAD Doppler Radar that radically improved tornado detection and lead times for warnings..

Alright, we are recording.  And I made a mistake on my last guest. I didn't go to full screen enough. So let me see how I can do that with you. Let's see. No. One participant can share a time. No not sharing..

So how's the weather down in Norman today? It looks like it's beautiful. It's very nice, very nice. We are anticipating in early spring, yes. Well, I think, I don't know. I'm feeling it at this point. I actually got my golf clubs out one day last week. That's pretty good for February, yeah. Yeah. We had some cold weather in January. February's been pretty warm and the overall forecast for the next couple, three weeks suggests, it's going to continue warm. So that'll take us into spring I hope. Right, and at that point pretty good, yeah. We get a pretty good opportunity. Now don’t we?.  So I still kind of want one more snow, though. I just want one like legitimate. Give me 3-4 inches, you know? Yeah. I know the feeling. We don't get a whole lot of snow in Oklahoma, so I'm always wishing for it right. Right. Right. So alright. With that being said, we can start our interview if you're ready. Alright. And in 321, hello and before I started, it's Burgess, is that right? That's right, Burgess.

OK, alright, alright, now we can start 321. Welcome. We are joined by Don Burgess from the University of Oklahoma from the National Severe Storms Laboratory, and we are honored to have them on the program here today. Don, how are you doing on this late February day? It's fine. We're having warm weather so everything's good. Yeah, so other people can enjoy that for sure. I wanna go back to how you guys started.

First, what? What attracted you to meteorology? Why did you decide to become a meteorologist? Well, I was a born storm freak. I was always interested in the weather. Earliest times of remembering getting out. Thursday when we was looking out the window and see what the weather was. As I got a little older, my family got a television, which we didn't get till I was about 8 or 9. I would come in from playing outside to watch the. Elevation weather broadcast. So I was always interested and was fortunate enough to get to go to the University of Oklahoma and get my degrees there and start with the National Severe Storms Laboratory and have the career that has gone on for over 50 years now.

That's absolutely fantastic. I think that would be a dream for for many in the field of meteorology so.  Have been very blessed to have.. all the good things happen that have happened for me. Excellent, so where are you originally from? Lifelong Oklahoma and I was born in Okmulgee, which is over in eastern Oklahoma. That Stillwater, because my dad was going to college on the GI Bill, OK, which was, man, Oklahoma A&M College is now Oklahoma State. And then we moved Oklahoma City when I was 10 years old in 1957. So I lived in central Oklahoma ever since 1957 and have lived in Norman since the well. At school in Norman in 1967, and it lived in the 1970s.

So clearly you're no stranger to severe storms and tornadoes particularly. The witness, The right, no doubt. I've also been blessed to to be able to take part in a lot of experiments to learn more about tornadoes. It's like have been apart of storm intercept, team, storm chasing the past 20 years, chasing with the mobile radar, which is a lot of fun, really enjoy doing that and then you know thing I've become involved with is damage survey. So I've done a lot of work on trying to estimate. Damage or estimate the intensity of the tornado from the damage and I'm taking part in the in the activity now to try to further improve the what we call the Enhanced Fugita Scale to. Properly represent how intense these tornadoes are.

Very cool, we can we can touch on that before the end of the this this conversation here. Don. So you know we're here to talk about a big anniversary coming up. The anniversary of the most violent tornado outbreak that we've ever witnessed. So let's get started with where you were on April 3rd of 1974. I was still in Graduate School in 1974 when I was already working for the National Severe Storms Laboratory, and what I remember about that day was being out at the National Severe Storms Lab in the afternoon. And I was in the weather room. The weather room was the room where we had our teletypes infect simile machine. And uh, we all work together around those those slow printing teletypes. Getting the information about the washes and the warnings and and the radar summaries and the events, but it was kind of slow going. Those teletypes weren't very fast and and it was a bottleneck for communication but also a bottleneck for meteorologists who were looking from the sidelines and trying to watch what was going on.

Right. And you know I I guess we should briefly describe the anticipation on April 3rd of 74, while on the public I think generally was a largely unaware. No one within the Weather Service, there were some knowledge, but certainly disseminating from where you were in the National Severe Storms Forecast Center at the time, correct. So what was it Kansas City back in those days in 1974? Need to know. Right. So a few days before the 3rd, I know on the first it was a a small outbreak of 20 years across parts of the Midwest. Kind of a teaser, I guess. Things to come, so, all right. What were you all expecting and why? Well. No, today in 2024 all the way advancements in Meteorology that that I stand over my career, we we had much better anticipate these severe weather outbreaks. We have the SVC outlooks now going out as far as eight days so we can advance. We kind of see these things coming. That wasn't the way in 1974. 07:30 We didn't have near as good numerical models and the Storms Prediction Center which was then the National Severe Storms Forecast Center by name. They only issued day 2 and day one outlooks. So really the anticipation didn't start till maybe April 1st or April 2nd. And that two-day outlook that was issued by NSSFC. Recovery internal to the government, to the to the Weather Service and the research labs and those people. So there was not a long anticipation time of several days. It was basically just one or two days. Pretty much as I remember it one day.  We got excited on April 2nd. April 3rd might be a big day. There were actually some severe storms in southeast Oklahoma and Arkansas during the night between the 2nd and the 3rd. And kind of heightened the anticipation. So we were we were excited about around. On April 3rd, but not much before.

Alright, so once you know once things began to evolve on the 3rd. Tornadoes begin to develop and wrapping succession. Were you locked in or were you just casually getting the reports? I know you mentioned the teletypes and and news of the little slower to spread at the time. What were your thoughts and what was the feeling is this thing was starting? We were getting some reports. So we knew that there were things going on and of course going on in multiple states. This was an outbreak that went from the Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico. So, So we can see that it was widespread, but the teletypes were so slow and so far behind. We really couldn't judge the severity like we would be able to do now in the digital age. This was an old analog age in 1974 and so we we knew that there been a few bad tornadoes, but that was really about the. In the in those afternoon hours when I was watching the teletype machines.

Right. And so at what point did it dawn on you the actual scope? Did it take days later or? That night there, there was. Immediate action television broadcasts and so forth about, say, the 10:00 PM news. It was it was being reported out. Severe at the end and then by the 11th. Newspapers were more important than there was newspaper information, there were discussions. I think it was on the 11th and maybe on the 12th or the beginnings of organizing teams to go and do damage survey. After Ted Fujita who was an important early meteorologist did a lot of research on severe storms and tornadoes. He was the kind of the head guy for damage surveys. From his base at the University of Chicago, he started organizing teams to do damage surveys by probably the… not the 4th, but the 5th, 6th sometime around there and then those gaming survey teams went out by.. the 7th or 8th of April and were in the field for some time. NSSL where I work was invited to have one participant go and join Ted Fujita’s teams and it kind of fell to another young meteorologist and myself. One of us would go and one of us would stay back and work with this newly developed, experimental Doppler radar. First, Doppler weather radar had been built. And so my friend Les Lemon was the one who went into damage surveys and I stayed back in Oklahoma to participate in our data collection with this new Doppler radar. So I didn't go on the damage surveys. I heard about them from Les Lemon. Then of course there were a lot of papers written. What? The government on the event, so I learned about it overtime that I actually stayed back in Oklahoma and we had a very exciting event coming up in May of 1973 where we got our first being dated case the Union City storm where we just were beginning to learn the power of the Doppler radar.

Very cool. And I wanna talk about the Nexrad Doppler radar here in a couple of moments you mentioned that you. During your time at NSSL was to the same chasing, it was to do some storm surveys. So the tornadoes that you had surveyed, how many of them have reached F4 or F5 status? OK, goodbye. Sorry my wife. No, no problem. No problem. Well. I don't. I don't have a good account. I quit accounting some time ago. Back then, it was over 100 tornadoes that I had surveyed, so I've been a part of it. April 3rd, 1974, but I've been a part of a number of of. Carolinas event in 1984. Wichita Falls in 1979, so there was Oklahoma State as well. Tornadoes in the Florida Orlando area in 2000. The 2011 The other. They got right that we had. I participated as far as survey on that so, so I have surveyed lots of tornadoes and I had probably surveyed some somewhere in the neighborhood of. I would say. Of 20 or 30 violent tornadoes, those EF4 EF5s.

I bring that up is because part of the story I'm telling here is, is that it's just the scarcity and the rarity of that top tier of tornadoes, particularly the five later EF 5. You know, just looking at the numbers from the day. First and foremost that this is how I got my starting meteorology. I'll mention this just a personal note. On April 3rd, the 1st F5 of the day wiped out my parents and my grandparents home. Escaped, they escaped the path of the tornado, fled by automobile and. The estimate 30 seconds later, had they left 30 seconds later, while I wouldn't be here watching, the family wouldn't be here. So it was growing up, with the stories from that day, but the rarity of the EF5. Statistically I think it's it's less than, you know one per thousand you averaged across the United States list, one per year. Sometimes the whole decade can go by like currently I believe we haven't seen a single F5 since 2013.  Prior to1974 we've never seen more than two. F5 to a single day. And then you had April 3rd of 1974 when you had seven. Can you speak to that, the rarity? That type of of event and maybe you can speak a little bit to some of the conditions that made those the response.

There's certainly rare as you say and all like i said i i had perhaps surveyed 20 or 30 violent tornadoes probably only half a dozen of those were at 5 yet  several of them in Oklahoma, but but a few in other states as well.  But.. 16:00 the ingredients to have the most violent tornadoes, those ingredients don't get together very often. They have warm, moist air from the Gulf and you want it not just warm and moist, but very warm and moist. And that doesn't happen all the time. And you are a very strong storm system, very strong jet stream, very strong flow in the middle part of the atmosphere. That doesn't happen all the time. And those things have to come together. They have to be in the same place. If the jet streams to the northwest and the moisture to the southeast. It's not going to happen. If you have too much cloud cover and rainy weather it stabilizes the lower atmosphere. Then sometimes you might have a strong jet stream but you you're not warm enough and and the washers all been rung out and rain and you might have flooding but you don't get the strong and violent tornadoes. Also. Many times an outbreak is a regional outbreak. One or two or three states might be involved, but 17:07 the April 3rd outbreak was so different in that it had this large area of the country. For the Mississippi River east, where it was open with big low pressure center way to the north, huge warm sector, very warm, unusually warm, unusually moist and extremely strong jet stream coming over in a widespread area involved and and that is. Very, very unusual, extremely rare circumstances coming together.

You know I read the.. when I was a kid you know I I really got into the research of this event and what occurred. I read NOAA’s Technical Synoptic Analysis report. And buried in there is a quote that the the scientists have put this this technical report together estimated. That this was a once in a 500 year storm, which is you know, wow. Do you really think it was a once in the 500 year storm because I looked back at April 11th and of or excuse me April 2011? Nothing that ever compares 74 to prior to and until we got to April 2011 when we finally had something that was in the ballpark

Somewhat similar, right. It was more of a regional outbreak it.  It didn't go from border to border like April 3rd did. The 500 year event or not, that's. Very hard to say. We we just don't have good data that goes back more than 100 years. So certainly it's it's 100 year event. Maybe it’s a 500 year event. I just dont have any way of of having strong side scientific evidence to be able to say absolutely it is right in regardless of whether it's a it's 100 year event, 50 year event, 500 year event, it doesn't make a difference.

The fact of the matter is if you have a violent tornado that visits you. You don't care. It doesn't matter. You're your whole world has changed, right? And there still could be violent tornadoes without a big outbreak there. There are local events where you have very significant tornado. The last EFI tornado in the United States, as you pointed out, was in 2013. It was right here, locally in. Right up the road from where I live. And that was the only violent tornado of the day. The only strong tornado of the day was that one tornado, so you can have local events. There was a very violent tornado in Lubbock, TX in 1970. It was the only violent tornado of the day. And also very unusual cases, just like the extreme risk of April 3rd is unusual. The common thing is that you have a regional outbreak and maybe a violent tornado and then randomly you get these large scale outbreaks that have many violent tornadoes.

Right now I'm gonna speak to you and we can transition into how technology has changed as well during this, this, this portion of our of our talk. You know something that the 2011, you know, April 2011 outbreak really with an eye opener for me, I'm like, wow, I am seeing conditions that were at least in the ballpark of 74 and then later, I think a month later, John, what happened? Yeah, the Joplin was was kind of a single. It was one of those that was an isolated violent tornado. There was quite a few other tornadoes that day, but nothing nearly as strong as that. Then on the 24th of May, 2 days later it was a big regional outbreak with EF4 tornadoes in Oklahoma and in Kansas.

Yeah, I was actually in Kansas at the time of the Joplin tornado, not far away. I was working at the NBC station out in Topeka, KS, so it was kind of a neighboring market to Joplin. we had. We had severe thunderstorms and tornadoes the day before. In fact, Topeka was hit by a tornado the day before the Joplin tornado. And I got to witness that up close to personal. That was actually the first video cameras. Fortunately, nobody was seriously hurt with the Tika Storm. What to watch? What happened in Joplin? And I thought, I think most of us thought that today's the day of. Of a tornado taking more than 100 lives was over with all the modern technology with everything that the Doppler radar and how the dual pole Doppler radars could see and the in the modern warning and you know dissemination system of information. Never in my mind could we ever do that again could list. 100 people to a single tornado and then Joplin happened and what it was it 163 people or something like that? I think 158 was the final number. That's gonna be fathomable to me. So can you speak a little bit to what happened in Joplin and then we can talk about, well, if it happened in Joplin, what if we have another April 3rd, 1974 today? Yeah, well, those are good points. 22:35 I was like you and like any of my colleagues, we didn't think we would ever see another single storm. Produce 100 fatalities. Much, much less have it occurred in one city. So that was that was quite a a revelation to all of us when that occurred. And I think. Uh. A combination of factors are involved. One factor is that you you had local conditions set up. Late afternoon open warm sector, warm moist air. Strong low level jet developed toward dinner time. So the the ingredients came together locally. Tornado formed just on the southwest side of town, so there wasn't near as much time as you might expect for warnings to be required to to go out and be received. There have been a couple of tornado warnings before, but they actually weren't for this. Particular storm there for a different storm. 23:45 I think the people of Joplin were a little caught off guard? Because they they had seen the other storms, they hadn't done anything and and they had a lot of tornado warnings in Joplin and they'd even long sirens for some severe thunderstorm warnings in Joplin. So they have had a lot of times from the sirens went off, they had a lot of warnings and I don't think that they were anticipating prepared and ready to take shelter. Now what to do? Have a plan, Execute the plan. Go to the safest place. Find out where the safest place was. And so it just caught everybody and it was very big and very violent like some are like some of these big outbreaks are. It was that type. And it just devastated the city. So 24:38  if it happened then, it can happen again. Any of these spring days or or other seasons, summer and fall as well. We can get all those ingredients together in some place and even with good warnings, even with Doppler radar, even with the warn on forecast. Things that we're doing now, getting our numerical models down to where they can predict individual thunderstorms and their intensity, even with all of that a storm, can produce a tornado that hits the city very quickly. And then there may be significant loss of life associated.

Yeah, seems to me looking back to that event, there was a couple things that really stuck out. Technically they had decent morning, good morning, in fact 25 minutes. I believe.. what happened is they they had issued the warnings and they blown the sirens. Then they had come through and said that that the warning was cancelled because the first storm went North of them.  The warning that had 25 minutes was a warning for a different storm and a lot of people saw that storm and saw it going by to the north and thought, well maybe that was it, but there was a second storm forming. Just to the West of town. That's the one that reduced the violence. Maybe mixed messaging coupled with complacency and a lack of adequate shelter. Yeah, all of those things together and and this was a Sunday afternoon I believe a lot of people were out and about and they were in.. the big box stores that we call them, those prop up wall stores like the, Home Depots, Walmart.. That's just the way they build those buildings and and lots of people get in those buildings and if if the strongest of the tornadoes hits those buildings, it's going to destroy.

Right. OK. So going back to could it happen again today and let's see here. Trying to, they're trying to end this year. We got, we got a few minutes left here. OK. So real quick, I want to bring this back around and could it happen again today? You mentioned your involvement with the deployment of the next red Doppler radar. Can you speak a little to that? And again, the overall, you know, preparedness of where the United States is today for a big, big outbreak like maybe January or April of 2011 or like April 3rd of 1974. 27:24 Where in a much better position today, our weather radar program was not well advanced at all in in 1974. We had analog equipment, we have digital equipment. The images couldnt be shared. By large didn't have good radars and and they couldn't show thanks to the public either. And and we didn't. We didn't have good ways to get warnings to people like we do now. I can get radar data and warnings on my cell phone all the time. And not just here in Norman. I can look if there's another April 3rd, 1974, I can watch it evolve in Ohio and and. Alabama and Tennessee and and Michigan all at the same time. So it's it's a different world now and we are much better prepared. We have better equipment. Like I said, the Storm Prediction Center now issues these outlooks out to 8 days. There's no reason that we can't get it repaired. Well, if they had some of one of these huge events, if and when they come along, I think it's just a question of time. Another one will come along it sometime. 28:42 We can be prepared. We have much better preparedness activities. People know what to do. We're now building our structures more strongly, particularly houses, people who live in in the manufactured homes now that now know that they probably need to evacuate and hopefully they have a plan and a place to go. So there are a lot of positive things that will help. But, just like Joplin showed us, it's not going to obfuscate the whole problem. We will still unfortunately have a lot of casualties and fatalities and still tremendous damage because we do not feel it's just not cost effective to build against the most violent tornadoes. We just don’t build structures to withstand.

Well, when they're being said, Um. Any final thoughts on the 50th anniversary of the April 3rd 74 Super outbreak? One thing. We we haven't mentioned much when we talked about it wasn't analog age. We had telefax machines had fax machines, we didn't have NOAA weather radio that we have now. That's another important component of our warning program because it has alarms on it and you can set that thing and if you're in a school or if you're at home asleep in the middle of the night. That alarm will go off and let you know what's what's happening. So 30:12 we have all kinds of things. Now. We didn't have the end, but what started the modernization of the Weather Service was the 1974 outbreak. That report that you referenced about the event done by NOAA and by the Department of Commerce that Weather Service know what Department of Commerce that said. We're not prepared. We need better radar. We need machines that are faster. Of course they didn't realize that we were soon going to get cathode ray tubes and Internet and all the other things, but they started this down the road, the first digital weather system for the National Weather Service. Came after that report and what they needed to do. Said that we needed to expand the weather radio to a nationwide program. Said we needed a new radar network. We were starting to work on that and NSSL One when I was there in the in the early 70s and we went along, we put out a new network of doppler radars, so the whole weather service has improved.  A lot of the motivation for that change. Probably criticisms. Performance in the 1974.

Fantastic. All right. Well, great. Great information. I'm glad I asked that final question for you. That was great. Anyother thoughts you’d like to share. We got like 3 or 4 minutes left here. No,I I've always been a research guy and so I still like to tell people about the good research work that's being done. I'm not doing it anymore. I just. Retire here a year ago. But We have laboratories that work. Now closely with the operational Weather Service and we're developing better things in radar. We're developing better numerical models. We're going out and doing experiments where we collect data and observe. We still don't know everything about tornadoes. we know a lot more about them than we knew in 1970, but we still don't know. Exactly why they form? We know why the rotation rotating updraft comes along, but all of that rotation that's developing is carried aloft to the aircraft. How do we get some strong rotation right down at the ground and develop a tornado? We've got some of the information on that, but we don't have all the information. So we're still going out and we're collecting data. We're increasing our scientific understanding. And I think over time and that may lead to new warning systems and new model outputs and new ways to interpret the radar data that will make us even better than we’ve been before. Not just all-purpose. We can't stop the Tornadoes from forming, but we can probably improve how rapidly we issue warnings and how accurately we issue warnings.

Absolutely, absolutely wonderful talking to you, Don I on a personal side note, it's not really that personal I guess, but it is to me at the moment because I'm trying to do my job, is telling the story of April 3rd, 1974, but telling a new way, a way that it maybe we'll be able to help reach. The the the next generation. So I part of my my storyline is I'm trying to do a series of stand ups and I'm looking for one for the first tornado of the day, the first F5 of the day, which is the same one that ended up taking up taking out my parents and grandparents homes. So I'm looking for Ted Fujita’s original damage surveys. The actual surveys. Do you know where I can get a hold of those? Yes, I did. All of tents. Materials and I I worked with Ted on on a couple of events and and this is when he was the University of Chicago and he had these big rooms with with file cabinets and drawers and and millions of slides 35mm slides and and many many things all of his materials. Are now at Texas Tech. Ohh OK Texas Tech has a research library and they're still gathering materials of other scientists. They contacted me and I have a bunch of junk in my attic and in a storage unit and and I'm probably going to be giving him some of my things because they would just like. Have the older materials that that went along with the development. Yeah, offline. I can give you a contact there of a person. It's a it's a research library. For research. I don't think those materials. Everyone, I'll go ahead and end the recording process.

 

Jeremy Kappell

Meteorologist, Journalist, Writer, Speaker, Broadcaster

 

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