The Day Weather Reporting Changed

Prior to April 3, 1974, warnings about severe weather just weren’t that big of a deal. That afternoon, I was  hanging out with junior high friends over at Iroquois High School. I remember how weird it was as the funnel that hit the Fairgrouds passed over Iroquois Hill. I went ahead and rode my bike home shortly afterward.

It seems most people were oblivious to the fact that the worst tornado outbreak on record was getting ready to hit town. There was a lot of heroism in the media, and much has changed since in the way weather gets reported. Here’s a piece of what is on record at Wikipedia:

Dick Gilbert, a helicopter traffic reporter for radio station WHAS-AM, followed the tornado through portions of its track including when it heavily damaged the Louisville Water Company’s Crescent Hill pumping station, and gave vivid descriptions of the damage as seen from the air. A WHAS-TV cameraman also filmed the tornado when it passed just east of the Central Business District of Louisville.

WHAS-AM broke away from its regular programming shortly before the tornado struck Louisville and was on-air live with John Burke, the chief meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s Louisville office at Standiford Field when the tornado first descended. The station remained on the air delivering weather bulletins and storm-related information until well into the early morning hours of April 4. As electrical power had been knocked out to a substantial portion of the city, the radio station became a clearinghouse for vital information and contact with emergency workers, not only in Louisville but across the state of Kentucky due to its 50,000-watt clear-channel signal and the fact that storms had knocked numerous broadcasting stations in smaller communities, such as Frankfort, off the air. Then-Governor Wendell Ford commended the station’s personnel for their service to the community in the time of crisis, and Dick Gilbert later received a special commendation from then-President Richard Nixon for his tracking of the tornado from his helicopter.

Ask anyone who was here then and you’re likely to get a good story. Maybe some of you readers will share your memories here.

10 thoughts on “The Day Weather Reporting Changed

  1. As a weather freak and one who researches these type of events, I can tell you that April 3, 1974 changed meteorology for the better. Radar was put in after this event, as was the NOAA weather radio system. On the local side of the event, and as far as media goes, WAVE and Tom Wills hit coverage out of the park on this day. WAVE was the ONLY station to have a live local radar. It was taken from an old aircraft and changed for use on TV. WAVE changed weather reporting for those who had electricity. WHAS radio was there when the system failed. WHAS radio saved lives.
    For more on this event: check out
    If you search google for WHAS tornado coverage … You can watch coverage fromWHAS and listen to WHAS radio (over 12 hours worth). Enjoy. Today is history.

  2. I remember being out in the back yard and watching the sky actually turn orange, then the black clouds came in and I saw the funnel which was 10 or so miles away. We weren’t in the path but I was in awe.

  3. I was 10 at the time. I lived in the lower highlands off baxter. we saw the sky turn green and things get really quiet. we were all standing in the yard watching. When my Dad got home from his shift at ford he took off an old CPO jacket (remember those ?) and he shook off wood chips that he got from lying in a ditch near the Northridge subdivision. I also remember him telling us how he and two other men had to force several ladies in nice suits to get down and stay down that this was a tornado..I can still remember the brown color of that coat.

  4. For those who follow media you might find it interesting to know that WAVE radio (970) actually used to beat WHAS in the ratings…regularly. But, after April 3, 1974, WHAS was practically untouchable. Every station in town called that Arbitron rating “The Tornado Book.” This is the perfect example of super service to the community paying off with super loyal listeners for years and years.

    It wasn’t because WAVE (radio AND TV) didn’t do a great job with it’s tornado coverage, it was WHAS’s strong signal into the night that paid off. People tuned in Milton Metz that night and their radios dials simply didn’t move again.

    It should also be said that with all the deserved mention of Dick Gilbert’s coverage from WHAS’s copter, WAVE had Capt. Dick Tong up, too. His coverage, and his ability as a police officer to actually coordinate official help from the air was a tremendous public service.

    Finally, a little trivia about WAVE-TV’s original “aircraft” weather radar that they adapted as a ground radar. When it was first installed, the engineers didn’t take into consideration that it was a belly-mounted unit on the plane. As a result, the radar image was exactly backwards for awhile. After some head-scratching, it was corrected.

  5. I was 10 years old at the time, and what I remember most was that a funnel cloud, (had to be), passed directly over Moore High school. I remember the coverage WHAS provided like it was yesterday. Another striking thing that I remember was that after the storm was over it ended up being a beautiful spring afternoon.

  6. Do you think radio would come through like that for us today? I seriously wonder. Given the “Less is more” mentality that rules the roost today I seriously doubt they would come through on their public service commitment. Especially if something should occur after 8pm at night, when most of the breathing bodies have been sent on their way so RoboJock can carry through.

    Radio’s public service commitment….MEH!

  7. When WHAS radio kicked WHAS TV forecasters to the curb it was the end of WHAS providing a public service to the community. I remember the first tornado warning for Jefferson County after that announcement. We were in our basement with the power out and WHAS switched to a WAVE simulcast with Belski telling us to “look at the red here on the radar.” Tough to do when the power is out and I’m staring at a battery radio.

    Clear Channel took a Lexus and turned it into a Yugo. If WFPL was smart, it would invest in sweather coverage.

  8. Radio couldn’t do that today for one thing, WHAS no longer has a traffic helicopter. Traffic reports now are done from a room with a scanner and a computer on the TRIMARC traffic page. And as Dr T’s ghost alluded to, if it were to happen on a weekend or after 8pm, fuggataboutit. WHAS radio (and TV) has fallen a long way since those days. Along with the rest of the broadcast outlets.

    However I have noticed now that the TV stations seem to get excited over a normal, springtime thundershower like they did Thursday. Now, that’s that story about the boy who cried “wolf” too often?

  9. I was 13 when the tornado hit. My mother worked at the old Highway Department on Phillips Lane and for whatever reason, I had gone over to her work after school. State government let out at 4:30, just as the tornado hit. We left the parking lot and headed home, which meant southbound on I-65. I can remember looking out the window on the ramp and seeing the tornado, but it wasn’t a funnel. Instead, it was more like a rectangular shaped cloud dipping down to the ground. When I got home, I told my friends about it. None of them knew anything about it until the parents got home from work.

    As to the radio coming through for anyone today, those days are gone. The only real local stations are WFPL, WFPK, and WUOL, none of which are prepared for such duty. Other than those three, local radio, AM & FM is a vast wasteland.

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