New Documentary Details Life and Career of Ted Fujita, “Mr. Tornado”

May 19, 2020, 6:30 AM EDT

Above: Tornado researcher Ted Fujita with an array of weather maps and tornado photos. (© Roger Tully)

His name is synonymous with destruction, but in a good way. Tetsuya Theodore “Ted” Fujita (1920-1998), who dedicated his professional life to unraveling the mysteries of severe storms—especially tornadoes—is perhaps best known for the tornado damage intensity scale that bears his name. Yet the story of the man remembered by the moniker “Mr. Tornado” is relatively unknown to those outside the meteorological community. A new episode of the Emmy Award-winning series “American Experience” attempts to change that by giving viewers an inside look into the life and legacy of this pioneering weather researcher.

The film begins with scenes of the devastation wrought by the tornado outbreak of April 3-4, 1974—which Fujita dubbed the “Super Outbreak”—in which nearly 150 tornadoes killed more than 300 people and injured thousands others across 11 U.S. states and the Canadian province of Ontario.

In one scene that follows news footage of toppled cars and mobile homes and victims being carried off on makeshift stretchers, a somewhat curious and seemingly out-of-place figure appears. Amid the rubble, Fujita—a balding, bespectacled man in his fifties of Japanese origin—is seen taking photographs of the damage and talking to a local resident whose wrinkled overalls and baseball cap portray the image of a Midwestern farmer and present a stark contrast to Fujita’s dress shirt and neatly tied necktie.

Fujita explains his research to the man—who looks on with a slight sense of puzzlement—as if he were presenting a lecture to a group of fellow researchers or meteorology students. “It’s a collision of worlds at that moment,” filmmaker Michael Rossi said in an interview. “He just seemed so comfortable.”

Being comfortable while surrounded by chaos seemed to come naturally for Fujita, whose fascination with severe storms grew out of his study of a much more sinister—yet strangely similar—type of disaster years earlier. In 1945, Fujita was a 24-year-old assistant professor teaching physics at a college on the island of Kyushu, in southwestern Japan. When the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb over Nagasaki on August 9 of that year, Fujita and his students were huddled in a bomb shelter underground, some 100 miles away. Unbeknownst to them at the time, Nagasaki was actually the secondary target that day—the primary target was an arsenal located less than 3 miles from where Fujita and his students were located. A combination of clouds, haze and smoke from a nearby fire had obstructed the view of the arsenal, prompting the crew of the B-29 bomber to move on to the secondary target of Nagasaki. In an ironic twist of fate, it was weather that saved Fujita’s life that day.

Several weeks following the bombing, Fujita accompanied a team of faculty and students from the college where he taught to both Nagasaki and Hiroshima—which had been bombed three days prior to Nagasaki—to survey the damage, as depicted early in the film through black and white footage documenting the expedition. It was Fujita’s analysis of the patterns of downed trees and strewn debris that would inform his theories years later when investigating the damage from not only tornadoes, but also two deadly airline crashes—Eastern Airlines Flight 66, which crashed while on approach to JFK Airport in New York in 1975, and Delta Flight 191, which crashed while attempting to land at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport in 1985. His forensic analyses of these airline disasters led to his discovery and confirmation of microbursts—powerful, small-scale downdrafts produced by thunderstorms—and helped improve airline safety for millions.

Yet it was his analyses of tornadoes, following his move to the U.S. amidst the economic depression that gripped postwar Japan, that made Fujita famous. From the devastating Fargo tornado of June 20, 1957, to the 1965 Palm Sunday tornado outbreak to the Super Outbreak of 1974, Fujita revolutionized the concept of damage surveys by employing such techniques as photogrammetric analysis and chartering low-flying Cessna aircraft to conduct aerial surveys of damage.

Armed with a 35-mm SLR camera, Fujita peered out the window of the aircraft as it circled above the destruction below, snapping photo after photo as he tried to make sense of what he saw. His painstaking research yielded new insights into severe storms that previously had been overlooked or misunderstood. Fujita discovered the presence of suction vortices—small, secondary vortices within a tornado’s core that orbit around a central axis, causing the greatest damage—and added to the meteorological glossary terms such as wall cloud and bow echo, which are familiar to meteorologists today.

“I think that he was extremely confident,” Rossi noted. “He was very much type-A. He believed in his data.”

Rossi, whose previous films for American Experience include “The Race Underground,” about America’s first subway, and “The Bombing of Wall Street,” about a little-known 1920 terrorist attack that struck the heart of New York’s Financial District, said he was excited when the series’ executive producers approached him with the idea of making a film about Fujita. “I had not heard his story before so I was completely drawn to it and I was extremely excited about the visual potential of the film,” he explained.

The visual elements of the film are rich and well-placed. Archival news footage combined with 8- and 16-millimeter home movies and still photographs help tell the stories of devastation as seen through the eyes of survivors. Meanwhile, contemporary time-lapse videos showing the stunning development of supercell thunderstorms and footage of well-developed tornadoes dancing across the screen provide a mesmerizing sense of awe and beauty that evoke a different kind of emotion than the terrorizing feeling tornadoes often inflict.

VIsualizing severe weather

Rossi said there were many unique characteristics of Fujita and his story that make for an interesting documentary. “It has a lot of built-in storytelling qualities,” he explained, noting that the artistic skill Fujita employed in creating the maps and other graphics that accompanied his reports underscores the fastidiousness and attention to detail he applied to his work. “I really appreciate and was drawn to his data visualization,” he added. “I think once you start looking at his hand drawings and notes it starts to kind of hit you how exactly painstaking it was.”

Rossi compared Fujita to linguist and social critic Noam Chomsky, citing an ability in both to draw crowds and present ideas considered revolutionary at the time. “When he did kind of present outrageous ideas at the time—like multiple suction vortices or, later on, microbursts—he did it in such an elegant way that you were won over.”

An iconoclast among his peers, Fujita earned a reputation as a data-driven scientist whose ideas for explaining natural phenomena often preceded his ability to prove his concepts scientifically. His ability to promote both his research and himself helped ensure his work was well-known outside the world of meteorology, if only by his name. “He’s not a well-known person and yet he’s associated with something that is well-known,” Rossi said, adding there is significance in the fact that one can refer to a category on the Fujita scale and instantly convey meaning in terms of a tornado’s destructive power.

The original Fujita scale, or F-scale, which Fujita created in 1971, in collaboration with Allen Pearson of the National Severe Storms Forecast Center (now the Storm Prediction Center), became widely used for rating tornado intensity based on the damage caused. In 2007, the National Weather Service began using the Enhanced Fujita scale, which improves on the original F-scale.

The film features two of Fujita’s protégés: Greg Forbes, The Weather Channel’s severe weather expert, who served as the film’s technical advisor, and Roger Wakimoto, who currently serves as vice chancellor for research at UCLA. Along with Robert Abbey Jr., a close friend and colleague of Fujita, they share their recollections of the man and his work and provide context for the meteorological information presented. Their commentary is complemented by that of two authors—Nancy Mathis (Storm Warning: The Story of a Killer Tornado) and Mark Levine (F5: Devastation, Survival, and the Most Violent Tornado Outbreak of the 20th Century)—who add historical and cultural perspective to Fujita’s story.

Now in its 32nd season, “American Experience” is known for telling the stories of the people, places, and events that have shaped America’s cultural, political, and natural landscape. While this is not the first episode of the series to deal with meteorology or weather (previous episodes were dedicated to the Johnstown Flood of 1889, the New England Hurricane of 1938, the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, and the Dust Bowl), it is the first to focus on a meteorologist as the subject.

Combining archival footage and other material with modern storytelling techniques helps make the film a pleasure to watch, regardless of viewers’ prior knowledge of Fujita or meteorology. Add to that a beautiful—sometimes haunting—score by composer P. Andrew Willis, featuring cello, violin and viola, and the film presents an intriguing and engaging portrait of a man whose undying passion to observe, document, and classify severe storms set him apart.

“There are a lot of people who have studied tornadoes in America,” Rossi said. “Only one of them has been called ‘Mr. Tornado.’”

“Mr. Tornado” premieres Tuesday, May 19, at 9:00 p.m. ET on “American Experience” on PBS, PBS.org and the PBS Video App. For more on Fujita’s life and work, see the weather.com article by Bob Henson, “How Ted Fujita Revolutionized Tornado Science and Made Flying Safer Despite Many Not Believing Him.”

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.

author image

Sean Potter

Sean Potter is a meteorologist, weather historian and contributing editor of Weatherwise magazine, where his column “Retrospect” explores the intersection of weather and history. He holds certifications from the American Meteorological Society in both consulting and broadcast meteorology and is the author of “Too Near for Dreams: The Story of Cleveland Abbe, America’s First Weather Forecaster.”

Find him on Twitter: @seankpotter

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