That Which Shall Not Be Named

It’s cute when a little child covers his eyes and announces, “You can’t see me.” It’s quite another thing when grownups deny the truth.

Until 1950, American weather forecasters were forbidden to talk about tornadoes. Common wisdom felt no one could predict twisters, and so to warn people about the possibility of a tornado was just to get people upset. It was better, they felt, to live in ignorance.

Cara Giaimo writes: “From 1887 up until 1950, American weather forecasters were forbidden from attempting to predict tornados. Mentioning them was, in the words of one historian, ‘career suicide.’ During that time, Roger Edwards of the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center writes, ‘tornadoes were, for most, dark and mysterious menaces of unfathomable power, fast-striking monsters from the sky capable of sudden and unpredictable acts of death and devastation.’”[1]

The U.S. Army Signal Service began its forecasting office in 1870. John Park Finley joined the Army in 1877 and soon devoted himself to trying to understand these devastating storms. He visited storm sites and studied historical tornado reports. Then he began issuing tornado forecasts to his in-house weather reports. Nancy Mathis in Storm Warning: The Story of a Killer Tornado tells us, in 1887, “nervous superiors sent [Finley] new instructions: the word tornado was banned from forecasts.” Businessmen were concerned Finley’s reports would drive investors away from “tornado alley,” and they put tremendous pressure on his superiors.

Giaimo reported, “When the department was reorganized, Finley’s new boss, General Adolphus Greely, doubled down on this conviction. ‘It is believed that the harm done by such predictions would eventually be greater than that which results from the tornado itself,’ Greely wrote in a report to Congress. Other professionals agreed, saying that tornado prediction was a pipe dream. As meteorologist William Blasius put it in an 1887 meeting of the American Philosophical Society, ‘Just where the tornado will strike… no man can tell until within a few minutes of its passage.’”

The Weather Bureau prohibited forecasts that included tornado warnings in their regulations of 1905, 1915, and 1934. Then, two U.S. Air Force meteorologists, Major Ernest J. Fawbush and Captain Robert E. Miller, began studying tornados in Alabama, Georgia, and Oklahoma. “In 1948, after correctly predicting several outbreaks among themselves, they finally announced an upcoming doozy–the first tornado forecast in history.” Two years later, the Weather Bureau sent out an internal memo announcing, “the forecaster (district or local) may at his discretion mention tornadoes in the forecast or warning.” It was about time, and although tornadoes are still mysterious, forecasters are actively saving lives today.

I wonder what we’re not talking about? I discovered long ago that the way to kill a conversation is to mention “death,” or “sin,” or “salvation.” However, not talking about something doesn’t make it go away!

  [1] Downloaded from https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/until-1950-us-weathermen-were-forbidden-from-talking-about-tornados

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