National Weather Service meteorologist Dennis Cavanaugh called 1952 “a complicated time for the weather service.”
“Radar technology was pretty antiquated compared to today’s standards,” Cavanaugh said. “The radars that we had for weather were mainly radars repurposed from World War II to monitor airplane invasion.”
According to Cavanaugh, the United States set up radars on the West Coast, the East Coast and then in Hawaii. He said the first misuse of radar was during Japan’s aerial invasion of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
“They didn’t understand what they were looking at,” he said. “I guess they just couldn’t imagine that there were that many airplanes and mistook if for a weather feature or birds or whatever it was. They saw it on radar and didn’t realize it was a threat. So the radar operators that day didn’t call it even though they saw it. I don’t know how much of a difference it would have made because they only saw it 10 to 15 minutes before the bombing started but it probably would have helped a little bit.”
Because of that “misidentification of the invasion of Japanese airplanes, even though they were detected on radar … they started updating radar technology,” he said. “… They started putting them on aircraft carriers and they shared the radar technology with all of our allies. We were neutral but now that we were in the war, all of our allies, especially Great Britain. They put up a bunch of the same radar technology as well but they went through about four generations of radar technology in World War II and they were finally able to pick up bomber squadrons and to sound the alert, especially in Britain if the German fighters were coming over. The United States never really had another aerial attack, so there were no sirens needed in the United States at the time.”
Cavanaugh said when the March 1952 tornado outbreak hit, causing an estimated 52 deaths in White County and at least 209 across the South, there probably wasn’t any warnings, if he had to guess. On the Doppler radar at the time, “all you could see was the shape of the storm,” he said.
The first weather radar upgrade came in 1974, Cavanaugh said, done by the military, “and those were the first radars that were actually designed for weather. So in the 1970s, you got a much better look at what storms looked like. You got multiple elevations. You could see what was happening not just in one part of the storm, but what was happening along in the thunderstorm so that gave forecasters a better ability to project when a thunderstorm was likely to produce a tornado.”
He said the upgrade “wasn’t perfect, but it was a lot better than the 1950s radar technology that was just black and white. They finally had a radar that was capable of displaying color, different thresholds of radar intensity.”
In 1988, Cavanaugh said the weather service finally rolled out the current generations of radars where “you have a weather surveillance radar but it is significantly more powerful.”
“Instead of the 1974 radar where you can see out about 50 miles, the 1988 radar you can see out to about 120 miles, and they also included the ability to see velocities in a storm,” he said. “For the first time ever, you could see how strong the winds were, if there were any rotation within the thunderstorm itself.
“Again, we’re talking not until 1988, that’s when you get a lot more tornado warnings is when you can actually see the rotation and then you can see the structure of the storm better because the 1988 radar, there’s still what we are using today. The radar has just been upgraded throughout time, new computers put in them, new processors to look at the data and make it more high resolution, things like that, but the basic radar design hasn’t changed.”
He said the weather surveillance radar is still called 88B, which stands for the origin date and Doppler. “It has just been upgraded tons and tons of time. Now we have lots of different ways to view thunderstorms.”
Cavanaugh said weather data is archived back to 1990 so “you can actually pull up the radar data for every five minutes – every piece of information the radar collected can now be pulled up from a massive database.”
When tornadoes are surveyed by the weather service, he said, they find out their location, their path and what type of damage they did.
Lt. Todd Wells said the Searcy Police Department received information from the National Weather Service in North Little Rock from “multiple sources.”
“Through the Arkansas Crime Information Center, the National Weather Service will send alerts, watches, warnings and short-term/long-term forecasts,” Wells said. “It can be anything from extreme cold/hot weather, wintry weather, dense fog and severe storm watches/warnings. We have an emergency phone line which the National Weather Service calls with information. Both these sources of information come directly to a dispatcher who can get the information to the officers working.”
Wells said all of the department’s officers are trained storm spotters and when tornadic weather is near or imminent, they are sent to different parts of the city to watch. “We watch local television when tornadic weather is a threat,” he said.