The onset of Spring in the United States denotes the start of a new season for one of America's Spring pastimes. No, not baseball. Storm Chasing. Each year, teams of professional scientists and photojournalists join a growing number of weather aficionados to travel the highways and byways of America's Tornado Alley in search of that one special quarry: the tornado. Some go to unravel the mysteries of the destructive storms. Others to witness the event live. And others for that illusive perfect photograph or video.
But another storm chaser has been in pursuit of tornadoes for several months already, in fact his chasing season never ends. His name is Tom P. Grazulis -- a different breed of tornado chaser. You see, Tom does most of his chasing in the dusty archives of libraries across the country. He is the chronicler supreme of American tornadoes. In his books -- Significant Tornadoes 1680-1991 and Significant Tornadoes Update: 1992-1995 -- Grazulis has captured the story of over 50,000 American tornadoes, of which he rates more than 12,000 as significant (Fujita Scale 3 or above).
When Grazulis arrives in another town/another library, he prepares to sift through reams of old newspapers and other documents in the archives in hopes of finding a few more nuggets of information to add to his vast and unique US tornado history archive.
Tom wears many hats: historian, meteorologist, teacher, and video producer. As head of The Tornado Project, Tom has been able to cultivate his love for tornadoes into a growing business firm, co-administered by his wife Doris, which produced not only the encyclopedic Significant Tornadoes but a highly popular video series: Tornado Video Classics, the most authoritative videos on the subject of tornadoes.
As with just about every weather professional who also has a deep love for the weather and all its vagaries, Grazulis has a weather event story behind him: the disastrous Worcester, Massachusetts tornado of June 9, 1953, which passed only a mile north of his home. The awe-struck 11-year old wanted to make an informal survey of the damage but was turned away by National Guardsmen. Kept away from the major devastation, Tom does recall seeing "the walls of these three-story, multifamily houses just shredded."
A bachelor's degree in meteorology from Florida State University lead to a brief broadcast
career, but Tom did not find this work truly satisfying. He taught in the New Jersey school system for several years, becoming involved in the Earth Science Curriculum Project undertaken by the National Science Foundation.
Another storm pushed Grazulis' career path again into the weather breech. This time it was not a tornado, but a major storm that struck the New Jersey coastline in 1967. Moved by the coastal erosion and subsequent beach replenishment, he rented a helicopter and filmed the shoreline processes. The result was a 20-minute film The New Jersey Shoreline still in use in classrooms today.
In 1970, Tom and his wife Doris moved to Vermont, in the vicinity of St Johnsbury where they still reside. Both were teaching school full time, but in the summers, Tom, sparked by his experience in filming The New Jersey Shoreline, began work on what would become a 23-minute film about tornadoes: Approaching the Unapproachable. When completed in 1972, Grazulis had produced the first non-civil defense film on tornadoes, one which looked at them from a scientific perspective. (The film now is part of Tornado Video Classics, Volume 1.)
To supplement the film, Grazulis began his unique version of storm chasing, descending on libraries across the nation in search of histories on killer tornadoes in each state back to 1860. The work progressed slowing through the summers of the 1970s. While he gleaned libraries, Doris tended sheep on their Vermont acreage and designed sweaters, selling them under the label Slow Clearing Farm -- an allusion to the fog-prone valley in which they reside and the pace at which they cleared their 50 acres of forest.
In 1979, the winds again shifted for Grazulis. The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission became concerned over the potential hazards tornadoes posed to a growing nuclear reactor industry and ordered a tornado climatology be prepared for the nation. But at the time, two separate databases existed. One compiled by the National Severe Storms Forecast Center (now the Storm Prediction Center) in Kansas City, Missouri and the other by University of Chicago professor Theodore Fujita. Fujita's data covered the period 1916 to date and the NSSFC data base from 1950 onward.
But the two records did not agree on the details for many events. The differences needed to be resolved by going back into the historical record. For the next decade, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission contracted Grazulis to pour over the records of tornadic storms from 1880 to 1983. The Commission's tornado project team included several prominent scientists including the late, legendary Dr Fujita.
In 1982, administration of the contract passed to the National Science Foundation for an additional six years. The final product was the publication of Violent Tornado Climatography, 1880 to 1983. The report focused, however, on violent tornadoes, those inflicting strong damage (F4 or F5 on the Fujita Scale) which were of interest to reactor designers.
In the process of reconciling the database information, Grazulis found reports of many previously unknown tornadoes, many of which were killer storms. The entire effort required, according to Grazulis, 300 days in 34 libraries in 34 states. He estimates he also spent about 100 days filling information gaps using the large-city daily newspapers at the US Library of Congress viewing about 25,000 reels of newspaper microfilm in the process.
The actual rating of each of 50,000 known tornadoes by the Fujita scale appeared a daunting, though necessary, task. Daunting and tedious, yes; impossible, no. Tom took the ball and ran with in, into small town libraries and historical societies and large university archives. Days were spent pouring over microfilm. "Sometimes I went through 50 or 60 newspaper reels a day," he admits, "You end up becoming a historian-at-large."
In the end, Grazulis had collected data on 50,000 tornadoes in the United States, approximately 12,000 of which he rated as significant: causing death, confirmed F2 damage level or both. The two-volume, 1200 page report was completed in 1989. The completion of the formal report, however, did not end Grazulis' enthusiasm for the work. He knew more information was out there, including reports from events prior to 1880, and there appeared to be an interest from outside the regulatory community in historical tornado information.
Tom wanted to expand the work to include all significant tornadoes from 1870 to the present. The original study had gone from 1880 onward, and David Ludlum's ground breaking history Early American Tornadoes reported on events from 1680, the first reported US tornado, to 1870. Thus, there was a ten-year gap. His work eventually expanded to include the complete period of American history when Ludlum graciously offered his extensive research files to Grazulis.
The release of the great compilation Significant Tornadoes 1680 to 1991 came in 1993. But its huge size -- 1400 pages -- and high price caused the volume to find its way mostly to meteorological reference libraries and did not have enough of a market outside to payback the investment.
The explosion of interest in tornado videos in 1990, however, gave added life to the project. Tom knew where all the historical tornado photos and film were but had no contact with the growing realm of video and film storm chasers. Then he met and joined forces with long-time storm chaser Roy Britt of Richmond, Virginia. "It was a match made in heaven. Between us, we had it all. I went back to my experience in film and out popped Tornado Video Classics I and II and III." Together, they have the largest archive of tornado footage in the world.
Tom and wife Doris formed The Tornado Project to produce and market the videos. With the release of the Hollywood feature movie Twister in 1996, the stage was set for The Tornado Project to blossom. Grazulis put together two new video collections: Fury on the Plains and Nature's Fury which went on sale as Twister played in theaters.
The Tornado Project has since expanded its product line to include posters and videos and books including a supplement to Significant Tornadoes which updates information and includes all significant tornadoes up to 1995. They also have a well-designed and informative website that includes information on tornadoes from events to safety to mythology.
The Project work has started to document significant lightning events as well. And in the back of his mind, Tom Grazulis has another project: a megabook documenting the hurricanes of the Caribbean and North American from 1500 to the present with detailed information for events in the United States during the twentieth century. There are also thoughts of expanding the tornado work to include Canada. And recently, he wrote Tornadoes of the United States, an update of the popular book written by Snowden D. Flora in 1954.
In the Spring of 1997, Tom Grazulis took to the roads as a field storm chaser. Part of the reason, Tom admits: "People call up and ask What's the biggest tornado you've ever seen?' I'm sick of telling people that I've never seen one."
He combined his personal chase for a live tornado siting with the filming of documentary footage of the Sub-VORTEX research team in action during a scientific chase. Then it happened.
Memorial Day 1997 -- May 26 -- somewhere on the Oklahoma plains near Tulsa: a chubby, wedge-shaped funnel descended from the massive supercell overhead. Touchdown. We have a tornado. Grinning ear-to-ear, Grazulis announced softly to the chase team: ""Hey, guys, I'm no longer tornado-deficient."
Why do people go out onto the American roads to catch a glimpse of a tornado? Why does a man spend years of his life pouring over microfilm to capture tornado events that have touched human lives so? Tom Grazulis sums it up best in the opening paragraph of the Introduction to Significant Tornadoes 1680-1991:
"Nothing in the earth's atmosphere, perhaps nothing in all of nature, so uniquely combines the spectacle, terror, and random violence against unsuspecting and innocent people as the tornado.
Few other phenomena can form so quickly, vanish so suddenly, leave behind such misery, and yet still be seen as beautiful."
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