Dakota Datebook

Photographs and the Disaster

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

 

It can arguably be called the most stunning and impactful photograph in North Dakota’s legacy of tough weather. A weary looking, blond-headed young man gazes on the child he cradles in his arms. The body of the five-year-old girl he holds is bruised, dirty, and lifeless. The photograph’s graphic black and white contrast adds to the haunting nature of the scene. They are both highlighted against the stark background of urban rubble. The photo has been etched in the minds of North Dakotans ever since it appeared on page one of The Fargo Forum less than 23 hours after the state’s worst disaster.

Severe weather expert Dr. Greg Forbes, writing for the Weather Channel half a century later, observed “some storms aren’t just weather events, but are defining moments. The Fargo Tornado of June 20, 1957 was one such storm.”

Today, even casual weather watchers may know the Fargo tornado was an F5, responsible for annihilating nearly 1300 homes during its five blocks wide, nine mile long path of devastation and 13 deaths.

That rating of F5 was assigned to the storm 15 years later by the man who created the tornado rating scale, Dr. Theodore Fujita. The F, of course, stands for Ted Fujita’s last name. The Fargo tornado helped Dr. Fujita create the rating system. And photographs helped.

He was able to collect valuable data from the storm in large part because of the high number of photographs taken of the Dakota twister. Calibrating the storm’s path from nearly 200 photographs from over 40 locations, Dr. Fujita reconstructed the storm’s erratic path and its accompanying source called a parent cloud structure.

His findings shed new insight on the tornado’s track that had initially been labeled a single-path, skipping tornado by the weather service. He discovered the tornado had actually torn over the earth on five distinct pathways created from a parent cloud structure. His discovery of that effect led to the creation of the weather phraseology – “tornado family.” That wasn’t all. Today’s meteorologists use three other standard terms coined by the scientist; tail cloud, collar cloud and wall cloud. Ted Fujita would earn the nickname “Mr. Tornado” in appreciation and honor of his discoveries.

Two key Fargo Forum photographers captured the most memorable images of the event seen the world: Cal Olson and Alf Olsen. The photographs and the accompanying coverage lead to The Fargo Forum’s Pulitzer Prize.

Dakota Datebook written by Steve Stark

Sources: Dill, Joe 1988 Forum Publishing Co. North Dakota: 100 Years

The Weather Channel http://www.weather.com/blog.weather18

 

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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