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Force of nature: ‘Mr. Tornado’ tells story of scientists who unlocked secrets of severe storms

Tetsuya Theodore “Ted” Fujita had a unique vision for using any and all available technology to gather detailed data. He continually sought out new techniques and tools, beginning with his attempts to measure wind from the roof of his home as young boy, to creating maps to track localized weather movements, to using satellite mapping and Doppler radar to capture images of microbursts. (Courtesy of Roger Tully)

Like many other parents, Michael Rossi is adjusting to a new normal.

He’s working from home a lot more. His children are home for the rest of the school year.

These days, he’s balancing being a dad along with making films.

His latest effort for the “American Experience” series is “Mr. Tornado,” which will premiere at 8 p.m. Tuesday, May 19, on New Mexico PBS.

“With ‘American Experience,’ they conceive of all sorts of film topics,” he says of working on the series. “Once they get the funding in place, they will reach out to a filmmaker.”

With “Mr. Tornado,” Rossi got the opportunity to learn more about Tetsuya Theodore “Ted” Fujita, a Japanese-American scientist who devoted his life to unlocking the mysteries of severe storms.

Fujita is most widely known for creating the Fujita Scale, or F-Scale, of tornadoes’ destructive power.

His unique, forensic analysis of the aftermath of destructive forces, born out of the ashes of the world’s first atomic bombs, enabled him to map science onto a phenomenon thought to be unknowable, forever changing our understanding of tornadoes.

As a boy in Japan, he studied astronomy to help predict rushing tides while hunting for clams. He next devoured the sciences at Meiji College of Technology, studying engineering, geology and physics, all while continuing his amateur meteorological experiments. He envisioned a lifetime of scientific research in his beloved homeland, but World War II changed everything.

After the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Fujita took part in an analysis of the damage caused by the explosions. The impressions left from the rubble of Nagasaki and Hiroshima would later influence one of his greatest contributions to studies of severe weather.

Director Michael Rossi

“Once I got to know him and his work, about a year had passed,” Rossi says. “Here I was with this legacy of his work, sifting through his ideas and his scientific thinking. It was an intimidating thing.”

Rossi says he had to get enough information and then begin to peel back the layers to the story.

“He was so hyper-focused,” Rossi says of Fujita. “That, to me, was at the center of the story. He had an inquisitive mind, and that was amazing to me. Up until his final days, he was trying to find patterns.”

Rossi says Fujita’s story is full of mystery.

“You never knew where he was going,” Rossi says. “He’s a little bit risky, and he’s drawn to nature. We also go into how much the impact of World War II had on his interests. He went for everything. If it were complex, that didn’t slow him down. To chase tornadoes, that’s the ultimate science challenge.”

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