It was one year ago today, on a Sunday, that an insidious tornado tore through the southern portion of Joplin, Missouri.
Insidious because of how quickly it formed, where it formed, how intense it became and where it traveled.
Even with all of the technology at our disposal, 158 people lost their lives (NWS statistics). Here is a list of the highest single tornado death tolls on record.
Back in the 1950′s, a tornado killed 116 people in Flint, Michigan. During and soon after this tornado, huge advancements were made in tornado awareness, radar technology, storm forecasting (the “watch box” was introduced to the public) and emergency response. It has been stated that Flint was the last 100+ person death-toll from a single tornado due in large part to all of these advances and others such as warnings, weather radio and Doppler radar. While this is no doubt true, no one should believe that we reached a plateau or that this type of disaster could not happen again.
In fact, just as you would adjust what the dollar is worth because of inflation, this Joplin death toll needs a similar adjustment. Note on the list I linked above that all of the deadly tornadoes higher than Joplin happened before there was radar (Doppler or otherwise), tornado warnings, tornado watches, television, cell phones and certainly the internet. When considered in this light, the tragedy of Joplin glares even brighter.
High death tolls are a matter of horrible circumstances coming together. The real truth is that this can happen again and it will, somewhere. Population areas continue to expand. There are some who think even higher fatalities are possible.
Before I go any further, I would recommend reading the National Weather Service “Service Assessment Report” for the Joplin tornado (PDF file). A panel of individuals performed an assessment (as they do for most major tornadoes and/or outbreaks) of the events leading up to the this tornado. There are some valuable insights in this paper.
I’m an old school guy with regard to tornado warnings. Even with my all of my experience with tornadoes in the Ozarks and my inside knowledge of radar signatures, our family still takes shelter, without question, when a tornado warning is issued. I’m a strong believer that a tornado warning is not “soft”, rather, it offers a choice to take shelter, yes or no. A personal decision.
But many people don’t take shelter, at least not right away. The reasons vary but it mostly stems from a rather inescapable truth about tornado warnings: many times, nothing happens to you personally after the warning expires, even if a tornado is reported in the warned area. I state this not as a slam of the warning process but as more of a reality check of the current knowledge and dissemination limitations of the warning system.
The assessment report hits on this when it states that many folks sought a “second opinion” before deciding whether the tornado warning was important enough or close enough to take action. It is human nature to want to know what is going on around you.
Everyone needs to know that we in this country are fortunate enough to have a government organization, the National Weather Service (NWS), whose mission it is to save lives and to watch 24/7 for threatening, destructive or deadly weather situations. This is a free service paid for by your tax dollars. The warning system is a good one. Not perfect but good. It is easy to loose site of the fact that the people in the hot seat issuing warnings have a tough job. They are being asked for more and more precision even when the current technology, understanding of the meteorological process, small scale sampling of the atmosphere and dissemination paths are not up to full potential.
The question I would throw out is this: are far can we take the precision of the tornado warning process? There is an old observation, made to drive home the idea of not ignoring tornado warnings, which states “no one is going to come and ring your doorbell and tell you a tornado is coming!” Well, I don’t know about doorbells but technology might help in the not-too-distant future.
The NWS is slowing rolling out a warning system in corporation with the cell phone industry which will give you a short text warning based on you GPS position. The only issue I might have with this is when cell towers go down or become overloaded during large tornadoes like Joplin.
On the other hand, weather radio is essential to anyone who takes storm safety seriously. The reason: it broadcasts a signal on a VHF frequency 24/7 and has the ability to alert you by county and to wake you up if weather threatens while you sleep. My only wish would be to make them GPS-aware in the future which would improve the accuracy and make them truly portable. It’s one device which should definitely remain a uni-tasker, designed only to do one thing!
Coming back to the Joplin tornado, the amount of time it took for this tornado to become a monster was very, very small. The tornado was low to the ground, perhaps indistinguishable to the untrained eye from a low cloud near the ground and made worse if trees and building blocked the view of the horizon. It started on the edge of very densely populated city (couldn’t see it coming for miles and minutes beforehand). It was really the second storm to threaten the Joplin area that evening (read the assessment report) which may have caused some confusion.
This video shows the beginning of the Joplin tornado and sums up how quickly it spun into existence: