Denial and Damage

Denial can cause damage.

In the summer of 1953 tornados had damaged several states, but everyone knew Massachusetts didn’t have tornados.

“The official forecast for Central Massachusetts called for a continuation of hot, humid weather with the likelihood of afternoon thunderstorms, some possibly severe. US Weather Bureau storm forecasters believed there was the potential for tornadoes in New York and New England that afternoon and evening. The Buffalo, New York office warned western New York residents of the possibility for a tornado, but the official forecast released from the Boston office did not mention the threat, based in part on the rarity of Massachusetts tornadoes, and perhaps partly on the potential psychological impact on those residing in the area.”
“Weather Almanac for June 2003: THE WORCESTER TORNADO OF 1953”
Keith C. Heidorn, PhD, THE WEATHER DOCTOR, June 1, 2003

Even after the funnel touched down in Worcester County on June 9 1953, forecasters at the Boston Weather Bureau office at Logan airport discounted telephone calls from the affected area, dismissing them as crank calls. After all, everyone knew Mass. didn’t have tornados.

Meanwhile, debris started falling 35 miles east of the funnel, some onto Harvard’s Blue Hill Meteorological Observatory. Not just small pieces, either: 6 foot planks and 10 foot square pieces of wall and roof, The Harvard observers managed to convince Logan to put out a new advisory. I don’t know if they waved a plank at the telephone.

But the damage had been done. It was too late to evacuate, tape windows, or take cover. “The damage was estimated at $52 million ($349 million in 2002 dollars) and included 4,000 buildings and hundreds of cars.” The picture on the left from the Worcester Telegram and Gazette is of freshman Senator John F. Kennedy touring the disaster area.

It was an F4 (some say F5) tornado, with winds up to 250 miles per hour. Yet denial was so great that trained meteorologists refused to believe the funnel existed while it was flinging cars into the air, demolishing houses, and throwing debris as far as 50 miles away; a mattress was found in Boston Harbor.

“”When people see damage, is when they start acting.”
–Darin Figurskey, meteorologist
quoted in “The Wrath of God” on The History Channel

Affected parties moved quickly to start a state-wide storm-spotting network to watch for future storms. They even did some historical research. It turns out Mass. actually has about 3 tornados per year, and the earliest one on record was reported in June 1643 by Governor Winthrop. It’s amazing what you can see when you stop denying that you can see it, and even more when you have multiple eyes watching.

Several people affected by the Worcester tornado went on to pioneer tornado chasing, tornado cataloguing, and Doppler radar. The Weather Doctor has more on them and the Worcester tornado.

It seems the best time to make risk management plans is before the disaster happens.