WEATHER SERVICES IN KANSAS CITY.....GOVERNMENT & TELEVISION
Kansas City has long been the center of many meteorological activities. Some of this has been due to its central location. Others factors include the unique work of government meteorologists early in the 20th century. Another factor was the superior communication facilities that surrounded Kansas City when it was a major rail hub. Much of this material is not well documented. Compiled by Allen Pearson and the WDAF FOX 4 Weather Department from several sources as noted in each section.
SEVERE STORMS FORECASTING AND RESEARCH
Joseph Galway (a longtime tornado and severe thunderstorm forecaster for the National Weather Service) became interested in a U.S. Army Signal Corps meteorologist, Lt. J.P. Finley. Much of this material is taken from Galway's 1992 paper "Early Severe Thunderstorm Forecasting and Research By the U.S. Weather Bureau".
In the United States minor networks for organized meteorological observations were established by the Land Office in 1817, and in 1819 by the Surgeon-General of the Army. The telegraph, invented in 1833 was made available to the public in 1845. In 1847 the Smithsonian Institution began a series of meteorological observations for solving the problems of storms. By 1860 there were 500 weather stations, but the Civil War cut into the program. In December 1873 Joseph Henry, director of the Smithsonian, petitioned the U.S. Army Signal Corps to assume the funding for the observation program, which it did in 1874. The observations were rudimentary and little was done with the data in an operational fashion. In 1880 a "study room" was formed and in 1882 Lt. John P. Finley was assigned to this fledgling research group, and place in charge of "tornado studies". Finley established a network of tornado reporters east of the Rockies which expanded from 120 in 1883 to 2403 in 1887. Finley used the observations to begin his predictions in 1884. Finley developed the severe storms chart or tornado chart as it was called. He correctly noted the intrusion of dry air behind the surface moist tongue, still one of the key indicators of tornado development. While Finley was developing tornado forecasting techniques the Signal Corps banned the use of the word "tornado" in any forecasts.
In 1884 the observation network was improved towards a goal of a weather station every 40 miles. The Post Office agreed to assist in filling the data gap. Meanwhile back in the east, the New England Meteorological Society had been founded in 1883 and had initiated a study of New England storms. A call for volunteers brought a response from 500 people and about 300 of them were brought into the project. In the mid 1880s a political controversy came on the scene and a congressional investigative group recommended civilian control of the weather service, which brought an end of the tornado project of Finley. Reports of tornadoes and severe thunderstorms continued, but infighting within the Signal Corps led the Chief Signal Officer to conclude "....that more harm would be done by the prediction of a tornado than from the tornado itself". Thus in 1887 the U.S. Army Signal Corps was no longer in the forefront of tornado research.
On July 1 1891 the weather services were transferred to the Department of Agriculture and named the U.S. Weather Bureau. Many of the Signal Corps personnel, either civilian or military, transferred to the new service. One of the first projects approved by the Chief of the Weather Bureau was a thunderstorm investigation to determine the feasibility of a forecast program. Certain empirical rules had been formulated and an attempt was made to forecast thunderstorms for an area from the upper Mississippi Valley eastward to the Atlantic coast. The forecasts were fairly successful, but in 1885 the Chief of the Weather Bureau was dismissed and the new Chief effectively cut out any research. From 1897 to 1916 there was no cohesive program within the USWB. There was no attempt to do any statistical work on tornadoes during that period although the more significant outbreaks did get some recognition. A deterrent to research on severe local storms in the first 40 years of the 20th century was a ban on the use of the word "tornado" in forecasts, even though individual researchers were clearly on the track of finding the conditions suitable for tornado research.
The Weather Bureau began to expand in the late 1930s due to the commercial aviation increase and in 1940 was transferred to the Department of Commerce. Plans for increased research were negated by the outbreak of WWII and weather information was censored for a short time. During the middle part of the war the USWB resumed interest once again and permitted the forecaster to warn on storms once they had been formed, but not to forecast tornadoes. Several major tornado outbreaks during this time led to an increased interest but nothing much came of it.
In 1948 Tinker AFB (near Oklahoma City) was hard hit by a tornado and two young officers, Ernest Fawbush and Robert Miller, were told to make sure it didn't happen again. They had already been working on a technique for the prediction of severe thunderstorms and tornadoes and five days later were able to provide some warning for another tornado that hit Tinker AFB. They gained instant recognition and were given the go ahead to do experimental tornado forecasts for central Oklahoma. Although the forecasts were distributed only within the USAF weather offices, the information soon leaked out to the local media and the USWB came under fire for its lack of action. Fawbush and Miller presented a paper at the AMS meeting in St. Louis in 1950 (your author was there and was very impressed) and as luck would have it damaging tornadoes occurred near St. Louis the night before, in January no less! Fawbush and Miller were invited to give seminars to the USWB District Forecast Office in Kansas City and while they had many supporters within the Weather Bureau they did not have many where it counted, at the Weather Bureau headquarters in Washington DC. The Weather Bureau Chief did have a high ranking official look into the possibility of tornado forecasts and a research program was begun. The tornado project was undertaken in the Kansas-Oklahoma area and gradually extended from 1950 through 1952. In 1952 the first public releases were undertaken in Washington DC.
We now come to one of the movers and shakers of the period. J.R. Lloyd (Meteorologist-in-Charge of the Kansas City District Forecast Office from 1944 to 1952) was described by one of his fellow meteorologists as a man who set his own priorities and assumed that he needed no authorization to do whatever he wanted to do. Lloyd began to release re-worded Air Force tornado forecasts to the press and in 1952 Lloyd formed his own group in Kansas City primarily using the Fawbush and Miller techniques. His actions, and media criticism of the Weather Bureau forced the USWB Chief to action sooner than he desired and the Weather Bureau began releasing routine severe storms forecasts from Washington in May 1952. J.R. Lloyd died unexpectedly in 1952 and the unit he established was cut back to one man. In the fall of 1953 a proposal to form a severe local storm unit in Kansas City (while retaining the one in Washington DC) was submitted to the Chief of the USWB by Henry L. Jacobson, the acting MIC of the Kansas City Forecast office. This idea was turned down due to duplication. A Tornado Project was being undertaken and several conferences were held to discuss improved tornado forecasts and warnings. The initial SWU (Severe Weather Unit) was a hastily-formed group of five forecasters, and a supervisor was added in late 1952. All five were comparatively young and had had military experience. It was learned later that they were selected, in part, with the hope that they might not have preconceived ideas on severe storm forecasting. Joseph Galway was one of the five. Kenneth Barnett was selected to be the first supervisor. Each forecaster had selected or had been assigned an area of study related to severe local storms forecasting. Check lists were developed but there was no improvement over their earlier methods of Fawbush and Miller. Initial efforts centered on the analysis of potential instability and related surface and upper air parameters considered favorable for tornado formation.
Donald C. House replaced Barnett in March 1952 about the time that a six hour lead time was mandated by Weather Bureau officials. In early 1953 two research meteorologists were added to the staff in Washington. House's appointment was a good one, for his personal enthusiasm and drive blended with his extensive background in Washington and Kansas City. A second researcher and a sixth forecaster was added to the staff. By now the unit had been renamed Severe Local Storms (SELS), the name it retains to his day. In late 1954 SELS was transferred to Kansas City. It was the first step in the consolidation of the Weather Bureau and USAF forecast units. Research efforts were stepped up and in 1955 plans were made to fly an instrumented airplane (P-51) through tornado forecast areas prior to the onset of convective activity. The initial results were inconclusive party due to calibration problems. In 1961 an augmented research effort was formed and call the National Severe Storms Project. The staff had 13 aircraft available along with two overlapping surface networks with a dense coverage of stations measuring the usual parameters. At the same time the USWB formed a Weather Radar Laboratory (WRL) at Norman OK. Behind the scenes infighting led to the merging of the two research arms, at Norman, and took the research efforts completely away from the forecasting arena.
Allen Pearson took over for Donald House in mid-1965 and in 1966 the office name was changed to The National Severe Storms Forecast Center. NSSFC was the largest office of the USWB (outside of Washington DC) and it included the SELS unit...a RADU unit which analyzed the hourly radar reports...a Communications unit that typed up all of the weather bulletins and managed the USWB's teletype circuits...A District forecast unit responsible for all public forecasts within a four state area...a Flight Advisory Weather unit responsible for all of the aviation forecasts for the Midwest...a Radar unit... a Public Service unit...a National Public Service unit....a Satellite unit....a Charting unit....a Computer unit, and acted as landlord to the Air Weather Service's detachment which was co-located. Later on a Techniques Development Unit was added, which was basically a research staff similar to what had been in Kansas City in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
The observation station at Municipal Airport was moved to KCI in late 1972, also a part of the NSSFC. Technological and political changes started to peel it away, even as new units moved in. The USAF moved their unit to nearby Offutt AFB rather than be consolidated. The NWS offices at Topeka, Des Moines, St. Louis and Omaha were given the responsibility for their state and zone forecasts. The aviation weather program soon followed suit but was replaced by a Regional Warning Coordination Center... an unsuccessful effort to insure forecast consistency from one state to the next. The local public service program was sent to KCI and the national public service unit was truncated until it could no longer function. The aviation program was augmented with the addition of a CONVECTIVE SIGMET unit.
Fred Ostby took over in 1979 after seven years as Deputy Director. His 24 years in severe storms was second only to Joe Galway's. During this period there were significant improvements in the computer capacity and in the input of weather satellite imagery. There was a continued improvement in the skill scores for tornado and severe thunderstorm watch issuances. It is this author's personal view that an over-designed Weather Service reorganization and several questionable decisions based on political considerations led to the final demise of NSSFC in early 1997. As of this writing the operational and research arm are co-located on the north campus of the University of Oklahoma. The mix includes many tornado chasers as well as scientists trying to help the operational forecaster improve his or her skill score. We will have to leave it to history to see how it works out.
TELEVISION WEATHERCASTERS AND METEOROLOGISTS
WDAF Channel 4 (with help from Dan Henry and Murray Nolte)
Shelby Storck was the first weathercaster when WDAF was the only television station. He was followed by Al Christie and then Bob Wells.....Murray Nolte began his television career in 1955 and continued on through 1970. He later was Mayor of Merriam and a Johnson County Commissioner for two terms. During the WDAF strike Howard Hanks (mid 1960s) became the first meteorologist on any of the stations. He had been an assistant SELS forecaster with the U.S. Weather Bureau, and had left to go into private practice. He was tragically killed in a commercial plane crash. Murray Nolte succeeded Hanks and was followed by Jack Cafferty. Jack left WDAF for an anchor position in New York City and was followed by Cynthia Smith. Cynthia became an anchor with the station and was followed by Dick Hoctor and Dan Henry. Mike Thompson became WDAF's second meteorologist after leaving KCTV and Dave Dusik, also a meteorologist did the morning show. Since that time WDAF has expanded to an all meteorologist staff of Joe Lauria, Don Harmon, Tina Simpkin and Matt Jensen.
KCMO/KCTV Channel 5 (with help from Wendell Anschutz and Johnny Yates)
Bill Yearout was the first KCMO weathercaster. Johnny Yates had been the weathercaster at nearby St. Joseph when he was hired to join KCMO-TV in 1958, a position he held with the station until 1981. Don Warnock did weekend weathercasting during much of this period, as did Jim Newman. Fred Broski left KMBC-TV and joined KCMO-TV in the mid 1970s and continued to do weathercasts off and on until his retirement. Hugh Bowen, a staff announcer, also filled in on an as need basis. Allen Pearson was channel 5's first meteorologist (weekend) for a short period in 1981. Other part-time weathercasters include Steve Swienkowski, Jack Smalley and Cynthia Smith. Mike Thompson became their second meteorologist and was followed by Dave Sweeney, Gary Amble and Katie Horner who is the Chief Meteorologist currently.
KMBC Channel 9 (with help from Larry Moore)
John Bilyeu was the first weathercaster in the 1960s, followed by John Sanders in the late 1960s. Fred Broski was the weathercaster from 1967 to 1969 followed by Dick Hoctor from 1969 to 1972. Dick continued on weekend until 1979. Fred Broski resumed weathercasts from 1972 to 1975. Cheryl Jones was the first female weathercaster anchor from 1975 to 1978. She was followed by Channel 9 first meteorologist, Dave Dusik, from 1978 to 1988. Bryan Busby, the current chief meteorologist, has been with channel 9 since 1988. Channel 9 did not have weekend weathercasters for many years, but Larry Moore recalls Mike Placke, Sara Croke (a meteorologist), Drew Dimmel and Bruce Jones. Currently the morning weathercasts are done by Joel Nichols and weekend weathercasts are done by Pete Grigsby.
Channel 41 did not have a fulltime staff until it became the NBC affiliate. Jeff Ray was the first meteorologist followed by Mike Roberts, Dave Sweeney, Lori Miller and Gary Lezark, the current chief meteorologist. Greg Fields joined Lori Miller and Jeff Ray in 1966.