It was the Palm Sunday aftermath, of 1965, that ultimately helped resurrect confidence in weather reporting as well as engendering sobriety about being vigilant when such warnings are disseminated. Thanks, Conrad, Grant, Martin, and engineer Art Collins. Iowa is a great state!
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Almost precisely 56 years ago, I was a wee lad living in Marion, Iowa, when the catastrophic and infamous Palm Sunday morning tornadoes ripped across Iowa and the Midwest, making for a swath of death and destruction that day of April 11, heading into Holy Week and Easter of 1965.
Hundreds of Americans were killed over this three-day spree in nearly a dozen Midwest states, causing well over a billion dollars of damage, when factoring in inflation. The terrifying specter of double-vortex twisters hung like wraiths prior to their devastating touchdowns.
Sadly, there was confusion with respect to the dissemination of early weather warnings on the morning of Palm Sunday. As Wiki summarizes:
“Although weather-radar stations were few and far between in 1965, the severe nature of the thunderstorms was identified with adequate time to disseminate warnings. (Martin Jensen of WMT Radio was the first to alert Midwestern authorities.) But the warning system failed as the public never received them. Additionally, the public did not know the difference between a Forecast and an Alert.”
“…(M)any people were attending services at church, one possible reason why some warnings were not received. There had been a late winter in 1965, much of March being cold and snowy; and as the day progressed, warm temperatures encouraged picnickers and sightseers. For many areas, April 11 marked the first day of above-average temperatures, so members of the public, being outdoors or attending services, failed to receive updates from radio and television.” Ibid.
Well—there be heroes! And they came from Iowa—from WMT Radio 600/WMT Television Channel 2, both domiciled at Broadcast Park adjacent to the huge Collins Radio defense/avionics plant, home of work for the successful Mercury-Gemini-Apollo U.S. space travel.
Conrad Johnson was the on-air Meteorologist for WMT-TV and Radio. An Air Force veteran and pilot, Johnson (and previously mentioned Martin Jensen) had one of the first weather radar systems attached to a U.S. media outlet—working in conjunction with the vaunted Collins radar. Johnson also to flew in the clouds regularly in order to perform extreme due diligence in prepping his forecasting.
Legendary Grant Price, later of KWWL Waterloo/Cedar Falls fame, was then Station Manager at WMT in Cedar Rapids. At WMT studios at Broadcast Park, Price and Johnson convened at meeting with Severe Storms Forecast Center officials from Kansas City.
It was then and there where today’s NATIONAL Tornado Watch and Warning, and Severe Thunderstorm Watch and Warning systems were devised and implemented for the first time—as we continue to benefit from them to this day.
Concomitant with that, Civil Defense sirens prepped for nuclear attack warnings were used ongoingly for Tornado and qualifying Severe Thunderstorm warnings. Furthermore, amateur spotters and trackers enlisted. Ham radio, due to Collins production of parts for same embraced by so many east Iowa ham aficionados, also was utilized.
These journalist Iowans, complemented by additional eastern Iowans’ Collins engineering cutting-edge radar expertise, helped saved countless lives going forward.