Yesterday was yet another day in an unfortunate slew of tragic days in the severe weather season of 2011. With over 115 killed (reported so far) in Joplin, MO, last night’s tornado ranks as one of the ten deadliest single tornadoes in US history. The most recent entry on this list of top 25 is 1955. And this is, thus far, the deadliest tornado since the Woodward, OK 1947 tornado. So the question becomes…why?
I posted less than a month ago, reflecting on the tragedy in Alabama, and discussing some theories and ideas I had in light of the events of April 27th. I brought up the topic of sociometeorology then, and I’ll bring it up again now.
Why are so many people dying in tornadoes this year? We used to think that death tolls of 30-40 were horrible. Now we’re getting 50-100…and I think to a lot of us, it’s staggering. I think the answers to that question though are multi-fold. The first and most obvious answer I think of, that probably won’t satisfy anyone, is this: bad luck. We’ve had large tornadoes barrel through generally large communities this year. Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, Raleigh, and Joplin. These were all EF-3 to EF-4+ tornadoes. The deadliest ones were the EF-4s, as you’d expect. We have not seen this happen very often in recent years…and it’s not like they’re missing communities. The Tuscaloosa tornado was a monster between there and Birmingham. The Raleigh tornado was very strong for an EF-3 and hit an area that isn’t frequently hit by large tornadoes. If you’ve seen film of this tornado, it was absolutely massive and incredibly violent as it hit Joplin. This goes back to the analogy I make in the entry I linked to above: If you fire more shots at more targets, you’re inevitably going to hit more of them. Communities in the southern half of the US have grown in recent years, and it’s becoming a measure moreso of bad luck than anything.
We’re also coming out of a La Niña winter, which because of certain atmospheric variables, inherently produces more severe weather events in the Southern US than in normal years….we’ve had a constant barrage of moisture and storms hitting the Pacific Northwest since March. That’s just more available energy to produce severe weather as we transition seasons. We haven’t had a real potent, entrenched La Niña like this since 1998. In addition, the Pacific Decadal Oscillation is in a negative phase, possibly a long term negative phase, something we haven’t had in conjunction with a La Niña since the 70s (we’ve had some -ENSO/-PDO events since then, but…I’m talking bigger picture). We’re in a pattern that’s more similar to the 50s or 70s than we’ve seen since then. Thus, I don’t think it’s a huge surprise that there were several devastating tornadoes from those eras.
I’m sure proponents of climate change are going to feast on the events of April/May and use them as fodder to “show you” that climate is changing. This is not the time for that debate, nor is there any concrete evidence that climate change has left a fingerprint on these events. We need years of data to make a claim like that. And with tornadoes it is incredibly difficult to make that link because reporting standards, reporting methods (internet, chasers, 24/7 media), and populations changes have skewed the numbers significantly since even the 1990s or 1980s. We’re in transition from an old normal to a new normal in terms of raw numbers. So climate change has no place in the discussion of the recent tornadoes in my opinion.
That was a bad luck tangent. The warnings were more than sufficient for the storm. A major kudos to the NWS office in Springfield, MO. We really don’t know how unbelievably more horrific this would have been without their timely warnings and work yesterday. They and their media partners are responsible for probably saving hundreds of lives. The following is from the IEM Cow, which archives warnings from the NWS. As an aside, if you’re a meteorologist or weather enthusiast, this website is a must to bookmark.
The information above shows that the first report of a tornado in Joplin occurred approximately 24 minutes after the initial warning was issued. That’s incredible lead time, and that’s a job well done by the SGF office. This is another one of these situations though where we do not know if the warnings were taken seriously however. There were a number of factors that could have contributed…this is just a brief list.
1.) Was the tornado just so strong that even if you “followed the rules” and got to the lowest level/interior room you would have survived? EF-4 damage is pretty steep, and the pictures show many houses flattened. I don’t know if most homes have basements in Southwest Missouri or if there are storm cellars given their proximity to the Plains. Even if people utilized those, would they have been safe?
2.) Unlike Alabama, there does not appear to be any precursor storms from earlier in the day to knock off NOAA Weather Radio transmitters or cable/satellite coverage. At least there has not been anything I have heard of.
3.) Another thing I find interesting, and while I’ll openly wonder about this, I’ll doubt it had much impact….is that the CBS and Fox TV affiliates were in negotiations with DirecTV, as the satellite provider did not carry those affiliates in their lineup. However, there were other local channels being carried (ABC, NBC, CW, and PBS).
4.) Did people take the warning seriously? One report I read was that despite tornado sirens wailing in the city, folks at a driving range basically ignored them and kept hitting golf balls. I don’t know if this is true or not or just was an isolated incident. Regardless, it’s disturbing. And this goes back to the older entry I linked to above…about what I call sociometeorology…people’s response to and interactions with the weather. For all we know right now, the primary reason for the obscenely high death toll is my first point…big tornado, big community, even if you follow the rules, you end up in trouble. But, I do want to move to that point.
The NWS issues a lot of warnings. In my experience from working in television and talking to friends/family, people often wait until they themselves see something before reacting to it, be it a tornado, flood, or otherwise. Until they get the most dire warnings, they will not react, and by then it very well may be too late.
The tornado warning originally was issued because of Doppler radar indications of a possible tornado:
BULLETIN - EAS ACTIVATION REQUESTED TORNADO WARNING NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE SPRINGFIELD MO 517 PM CDT SUN MAY 22 2011 THE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE IN SPRINGFIELD HAS ISSUED A * TORNADO WARNING FOR... NORTHWESTERN NEWTON COUNTY IN SOUTHWEST MISSOURI... SOUTHEASTERN CHEROKEE COUNTY IN SOUTHEAST KANSAS... SOUTHWESTERN JASPER COUNTY IN SOUTHWEST MISSOURI... * UNTIL 600 PM CDT. * AT 514 PM CDT...NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE DOPPLER RADAR INDICATED A TORNADO NEAR RIVERTON...OR 4 MILES NORTH OF BAXTER SPRINGS...MOVING NORTHEAST AT 40 MPH. * LOCATIONS IMPACTED INCLUDE BAXTER SPRINGS...CLIFF VILLAGE...DENNIS ACRES...DIAMOND...DUENWEG...DUQUESNE...FIDELITY...GALENA...IRON GATES...JOPLIN...LEAWOOD...LOWELL...REDINGS MILL...RIVERTON... SAGINAW...SHOAL CREEK DRIVE...SHOAL CREEK ESTATES...SHOAL CREEK ESTATE AND SILVER CREEK. INTERSTATE 44 BETWEEN MILE MARKERS 0 AND 13 WILL ALSO BE IMPACTED BY THIS TORNADO. IN ADDITION TO A TORNADO...THIS STORM IS CAPABLE OF PRODUCING LARGE DAMAGING HAIL UP TO GOLF BALL SIZE. THERE IS ADDITIONAL TORNADO WARNING FOR A SEPARATE STORM ACROSS CENTRAL AND NORTHERN JASPER COUNTY. PRECAUTIONARY/PREPAREDNESS ACTIONS... THE SAFEST PLACE TO BE DURING A TORNADO IS IN A BASEMENT. GET UNDER A WORKBENCH OR OTHER PIECE OF STURDY FURNITURE. IF NO BASEMENT IS AVAILABLE...SEEK SHELTER ON THE LOWEST FLOOR OF THE BUILDING IN AN INTERIOR HALLWAY OR ROOM SUCH AS A CLOSET. USE BLANKETS OR PILLOWS TO COVER YOUR BODY AND ALWAYS STAY AWAY FROM WINDOWS. IF IN MOBILE HOMES OR VEHICLES...EVACUATE THEM AND GET INSIDE A SUBSTANTIAL SHELTER. IF NO SHELTER IS AVAILABLE...LIE FLAT IN THE NEAREST DITCH OR OTHER LOW SPOT AND COVER YOUR HEAD WITH YOUR HANDS.
The Severe Weather Statement, or update to this warning, was issued 13 minutes later, at 5:30 local time, with mentions of a funnel cloud being spotted.
SEVERE WEATHER STATEMENT NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE SPRINGFIELD MO 530 PM CDT SUN MAY 22 2011 KSC021-MOC097-145-222300- /O.CON.KSGF.TO.W.0031.000000T0000Z-110522T2300Z/ CHEROKEE KS-JASPER MO-NEWTON MO- 530 PM CDT SUN MAY 22 2011 ...A TORNADO WARNING REMAINS IN EFFECT UNTIL 600 PM CDT FOR NORTHWESTERN NEWTON...SOUTHWESTERN JASPER AND SOUTHEASTERN CHEROKEE COUNTIES... AT 524 PM CDT...NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE DOPPLER RADAR CONTINUED TO INDICATE A TORNADO NEAR RIVERTON...OR NEAR GALENA...MOVING EAST AT 20 MPH. THIS STORM HAS AS HISTORY OF PRODUCING A FUNNEL CLOUD IN RIVERTON KANSAS. LOCATIONS IMPACTED INCLUDE CLIFF VILLAGE...DENNIS ACRES...DIAMOND... DUENWEG...DUQUESNE...FIDELITY...GALENA...IRON GATES...JOPLIN... LEAWOOD...LOWELL...REDINGS MILL...RIVERTON...SAGINAW...SHOAL CREEK DRIVE...SHOAL CREEK ESTATES...SHOAL CREEK ESTATE AND SILVER CREEK. INTERSTATE 44 BETWEEN MILE MARKERS 0 AND 13 WILL ALSO BE IMPACTED BY THIS TORNADO. IN ADDITION TO A TORNADO...THIS STORM IS CAPABLE OF PRODUCING LARGE DAMAGING HAIL UP TO BASEBALL SIZE. PRECAUTIONARY/PREPAREDNESS ACTIONS... A TORNADO WATCH REMAINS IN EFFECT UNTIL 900 PM CDT SUNDAY EVENING FOR SOUTHEAST KANSAS AND SOUTHERN MISSOURI.
Then, the next update was issued roughly 9 minutes later at 5:39 PM local time, with the first mention of a tornado on the ground, spotted just across the border in Galena, KS at 5:34 PM:
SEVERE WEATHER STATEMENT NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE SPRINGFIELD MO 539 PM CDT SUN MAY 22 2011 KSC021-MOC097-145-222300- /O.CON.KSGF.TO.W.0031.000000T0000Z-110522T2300Z/ CHEROKEE KS-JASPER MO-NEWTON MO- 539 PM CDT SUN MAY 22 2011 ...A TORNADO WARNING REMAINS IN EFFECT UNTIL 600 PM CDT FOR NORTHWESTERN NEWTON...SOUTHWESTERN JASPER AND SOUTHEASTERN CHEROKEE COUNTIES... AT 534 PM CDT...TRAINED WEATHER SPOTTERS REPORTED A TORNADO NEAR GALENA...MOVING EAST AT 25 MPH. THIS STORM IS MOVING INTO THE CITY OF JOPLIN. LOCATIONS IMPACTED INCLUDE CLIFF VILLAGE...DENNIS ACRES...DIAMOND... DUENWEG...DUQUESNE...FIDELITY...GALENA...IRON GATES...JOPLIN... LEAWOOD...LOWELL...REDINGS MILL...RIVERTON...SAGINAW...SHOAL CREEK DRIVE...SHOAL CREEK ESTATES...SHOAL CREEK ESTATE AND SILVER CREEK. INTERSTATE 44 BETWEEN MILE MARKERS 0 AND 13 WILL ALSO BE IMPACTED BY THIS TORNADO. IN ADDITION TO A TORNADO...THIS STORM IS CAPABLE OF PRODUCING LARGE DAMAGING HAIL UP TO BASEBALL SIZE. PRECAUTIONARY/PREPAREDNESS ACTIONS... A TORNADO WATCH REMAINS IN EFFECT UNTIL 900 PM CDT SUNDAY EVENING FOR SOUTHEAST KANSAS AND SOUTHERN MISSOURI.
Galena is roughly 6 miles from the St. John’s hospital we’ve seen so many pictures of that was devastated. Doing some quick math based on the speed indicated above, it should have taken roughly 15 minutes from 5:34 to start impacting Joplin, and in fact, the first reports of a tornado in Joplin come at 5:41 PM…or roughly two minutes after the warning update was issued. The reports of major damage and a multi-vortex tornado come at 5:46.
I just diagnosed the entire warning sequence, not to make a specific point. The NWS did their jobs…and as far as I’m concerned they did an amazing job. But delving further into it, if the problem of people not taking warnings seriously unless they KNOW they’re in immediate danger prevailed, then they would have only had roughly two minutes to take cover, and by the time they actually got the updated warning, the tornado likely would already be on top of them. I sincerely hope this was not the case, but if it was, we have a major problem on our hands. The NWS does their job…sometimes, yes, they do warn for storms that don’t produce…but that’s not because they’re being extra cautious or saturating the public. If you’re under the gun in the NWS office and you have pull the trigger on warnings, you can’t look at radar and be able to tell that, “Oh, this is probably only an EF-0 tornado.” There are so many subtleties that you can’t make those kind of decisions based on radar or even real time reports. Storms can produce tornadoes instantly, and they can produce big time tornadoes instantly.
But if the NWS is issuing warnings because that is their job, and the people the warnings are intended for are not taking them seriously, how can we solve this problem? It’s an open-ended question I don’t have the answer to. And indeed, the bulk of the fatalities from this horrible storm may just be a case of bad luck and that it was too powerful to matter whether they followed the safety rules or not. But if it ends up that people felt surprised or didn’t react until they saw it, then we have a major conundrum that needs to be dealt with. As cities sprawl further in the south and our population grows, unless we know for sure that people are taking warnings seriously and lose the “it can’t happen to me mentality,” sadly these sorts of catastrophic losses of human life are going to become more common than they’ve ever been.
My own take? I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle, and the surprise, fear, and desperate warnings in the voices on the video below of local TV coverage from the storm makes me believe that people were surprised despite the warnings, and the storm got strong at the worst possible time.
Aerial footage of Joplin damage: