Ferguson said Doppler would allow warnings to be issued while tornadoes are being formed, as much as 20 minutes before they strike.
"That in itself would be a tremendous help and improvement in the warning program," he said. "As far as we're concerned, our main benefit would come from research . . . into better understanding the physics of tornadic storms.
"Right now, we don't know much about them."
Some of the myths about tornadoes can save your life; others will kill you, weather experts say.
But those experts guided by high power technology are nevertheless hesitant to debunk all the old wives tales and bizarre superstitions about tornadoes.
Fort Worth meteorologist Al Moller of the National Weather Service has studied some of the old superstitions and says many are founded on astute observations.
For instant, one old wives tale warns that tornadoes drop from murky clouds that drift toward the ground, and that they are accompanied by short claps of thunder and blinking red or pastel lightning streaks rather than common long bolts.
"There's a lot of truth to this," said Moller. "I can get very complex about this in a hurry, basically because we don't understand it. But since a tornado develops immediately southwest of the rain in a thunderstorm system, lightning bolts striking the ground will appear very short and sometimes even look like they're repeating themselves. In some tornadic storms at night, lightning is pastel--blue and pink and green.
"In fact, it's been suggested the tornado itself acts as a preferred electric connection to the ground. Some funnels glow."
He says, though, there's no basis to the folk remedy of cutting the wind with an ax or scythe to break its force.
"I put no stock whatever in this legend of 'cutting the storm,' " Moller said. "If it's the right kind of storm and it's coming your way, your standing out in the yard swinging an ax at it isn't going to faze it one bit."
It's also false that a tornado won't cross water.
"In April, 1970, a very powerful tornado developed south of Abilene (Texas), moved directly across a lake as a waterspout, smashed into a trailer park and killed a number of people," he said. "A tornado doesn't care what's underneath it."
Nor is it true that tornadoes strike from dead calms.
"As a matter of fact, tornadoes usually occur when surface winds are hitting 20 to 30 m.p.h.," he said. "This story keeps making the rounds because sometimes just before a tornado arrives, the horizontal winds that have been blowing are sucked into the updraft and become vertically rising air, so they're not noticeable."
It's generally true that tornadoes travel in a beeline from the southwest to the northeast and spin counterclockwise, he said, but there are enough exceptions to kink the statistics.
"About one out of four tornadoes will move from the northwest to the southeast and a few mavericks will spin in from the east, but most of those coming from the east are associated with hurricanes," he said. "Late in its life cycle, a tornado's tracks will sometimes curve, and we also have records of tornadoes that have made U-turns or complete loops."
Tornadoes, which can pack winds of more than 200 m.p.h., occasionally seem to sport a macabre humor.
Weather historian Barbara Tufty recounts the tale of a woman sucked through a window in a June 10, 1958, tornado in El Dorado, Kan., spun through the air and set down beside a phonograph record titled "Stormy Weather."
Other tornadoes reportedly have sucked corks out of wine bottles, plucked live chickens and driven straws into trees.
"Things like that have happened, but not because tornadoes have a sense of humor," Moller said. "All the tornadoes I've seen have been kind of mean. For every person who's set down gently, I've seen many, many maimed or killed. In most cases, the people carried aloft don't come back in very good shape."
The story about straws being driven into trees and fence posts is true, "but what's really happening is that the wind force is so strong the wood fibers literally split across, allowing the straw to enter, then slam shut."
Tornadoes seem sometimes to develop a fondness for particular areas, giving the lie to the wishful belief that they will not hit the same place twice.
"One man in Wichita Falls (Texas) lost his home in 1958 to a tornado, then lost it again in 1964 to another tornado, then gave up and moved from his neighborhood near the Red River to the south part of town, where a tornado in 1979 again destroyed his house," Moller said.
He said weather experts no longer advise people to open the doors and windows of their houses to keep them from exploding in the vacuum a tornado supposedly creates.
Brute Wind Force Blamed
"We preached this a long time, but engineering studies have prompted us to change our minds," he said. "It's the brute wind force, not the vacuum, that knmcks a house flat. In fact, flying glass has cut up quite a few people rushing to open their windows at the last minute."
The Indian legend that tornadoes will not strike a community on the fork of a riter has given many people a false sense of security, Moller said.
"Waco (Texas) is at the junction of the Bosque and the Brazos riverq, and the tornado that went through that town in 1953 killed 114 people," he said. "Most of the tornadoes that have struck Wichita Falls have followed the path of the Red River."
Moller said it is true that pets sometimes seem to know what's coming before their masters. "I've seen animals get wild and woolly when violent storms are about to strike. They may be sensing rapid pressure changes."
But, he says, there are no guarantees.
"The best animal for predicting tornadoes still is a well-trained human being," he said.