October 05, 2021
Saturday, May 22, 2021 marks the 10 year anniversary of the Joplin, Missouri EF-5 tornado. Besides being the deadliest tornado of the past fifty years, it was also the costliest tornado in U.S. history. It took $3 billion to repair and replace everything the twister destroyed. 160 lives were lost.
Prior to Joplin, the last tornado to kill more than 100 people occurred in Flint, Michigan in 1953. Although the Fujita tornado intensity scale did not exist in the 1950’s, we know from damage reports the Flint tornado was, like Joplin, an EF-5 tornado, with winds of more than 200 mph. Although these “worst case” tornadoes are rare (some years we don’t have a single EF-5), they are responsible for the most deaths. Why? Because if you are caught in a violent tornado, only a designated storm shelter or basement will offer you the protection you need to survive.
The tornado that dropped down on the west edge of Joplin at 5:36 P.M. went from a tiny rope-like funnel to a massive “wedge” in less than 30 seconds. A bizarre collision of thunderstorms added incredible energy into the air and the resulting twister spent the next 17 minutes tracking due east across the southern third of Joplin. 7,500 homes were damaged, 4,000 of them totally destroyed. In all, about 30% of the city was wrecked.
The National Weather Service in Springfield, Missouri had issued a tornado warning at 5:09 for a storm on the northern edge of Joplin. The NWS then issued a second tornado warning eight minutes later, at 5:17, for what would become the Joplin tornado. NOAA Weather Radios in the area received two tornado warnings as the western sky grew ominously black. The city’s outdoor tornado sirens went on at 5:11, but tornado sirens can only run for three minutes before they must cycle off to cool down. Some in town may have been confused by the on-again, off-again outdoor sirens, but they understood something important was happening.
Still, when folks stepped outside to verify the tornado, they couldn’t see a tornado funnel, just a very black sky coming closer to town. It was easy to mistake the cloud for heavy rain, but a jet-like roar was a clue to many that the rain was obscuring an enormous funnel.
After touchdown, the twister rapidly attained EF-5 power, ¾ of a mile in width. Moving at 25 mph, a tornado of this size takes almost two minutes to pass over your house. During that interminable time, your home is wracked by hurricane-force winds from different directions, loaded with debris large and small, battering even a well-built home to pieces.
Most fatalities in Joplin occurred indoors, and there are indications many victims were in the best position available to them. Because there are very few basements in Joplin, this means interior baths and closets, or hallways. In the majority of tornadoes, this may have been sufficient, but in the EF-4 and EF-5 damage zones, interior rooms and hallways offered less than ideal protection. The majority of victims died due to what the coroner designated as “multiple blunt force trauma.”
A few fatalities were recorded in automobiles, several of which apparently drove into the tornado’s path. Because the twister was large and rain-wrapped, it was difficult to know which way to turn, and some drivers made a fatal mistake.
Had the tornado’s path been a mere half-mile south, it would have taken out both Joplin hospitals. It struck only St. John’s Regional Medical Center, but it dealt a horrific blow. An air conditioning unit on the building’s roof was lifted off and dropped onto the ground where it disabled the hospital’s back-up generators, plunging the badly damaged building into darkness. A gas main on one end of the building and an oxygen storage cylinder on the other end were both leaking, and had their contents combined, the resulting explosion would have been horrific. As it was, the St. John’s staff performed heroically, treating a rush of patients who showed up by ambulance, car, pick-up truck, or who just walked in. They then performed an epic evacuation of patients from the hospital’s upper floors, carrying them down pitch-black stairwells to waiting ambulances.
Today, the Joplin tornado zone looks fresh and modern. Thousands of recently built homes with sapling trees in the landscaping and new cars on the driveway give the appearance of a newly developed subdivision. In reality, they represent the resurrection of one of the older parts of Joplin, where homes built in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s were ground to pieces by one of the most violent tornadoes in American history.
The people of Joplin have learned to pay attention to the weather forecast. They listen for watches and warnings, have a plan and a place for sheltering, and maintain multiple, redundant methods of receiving life-saving warnings, including NOAA Weather Radio. They know how quickly the weather can change, and they’ll be the first to tell you, if you think “it can’t happen here”, well…it can. So be ready.