Tuesday, May 22, 2012

"Joplin Was Essentially Blindsided By the Tornado"

Thus stated a representative of the National Weather Service in Springfield, MO in a story that ran in Sunday's Joplin Globe

I completely agree: Joplin was essentially blindsided by the tornado. 

Unfortunately, I disagree with the rest of the narrative of the story: That the horrible tornado one year ago today was somehow incapable of being properly detected and then warned. The facts say otherwise and I lay them out, minute-by-minute, in When the Sirens Were Silent

As those that read this blog or my first book (Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather) know, I'm a huge fan of the National Weather Service and its tornado warning system. One month before the Joplin tornado, an F-4 (upper 2% in intensity) carved a 22-mile long path in densely populated north St. Louis -- zero deaths, zero serious injuries. April 4, 2012, 13 tornadoes struck the Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex. Zero deaths, zero serious injuries. Ten days later, an F-3 intensity tornado struck Wichita causing nearly $200 million in damage. Zero deaths, zero serious injuries. The 161 that died in Joplin stand in stark contrast to these success stories. 

The people of Joplin, who today are grieving their losses and celebrating their successes at rebuilding, deserve to know what went wrong. 

The Globe's story, unfortunately, continues what I've called the mythology of the Joplin tornado. Let's examine some of the statements in the article.
  1. It really formed as it moved over Joplin. 
  2. I put the warning out before it had developed. 
  3. I had no clue that it would be a tornado that strong.”
#1. The tornado touched down at 5:34pm and didn't reach the western city limits of Joplin until 5:41. That the tornado didn't form until it reached Joplin is part of the mythology. Here is a photo of the tornado at 5:34 as taken by the Basehunters storm team west of town. 

#2. Yes, the warning was issued at 5:17pm before the tornado formed. But its movement was misstated.
The NWS said the tornado was over Riverton, Kansas, moving northeast at 40 mph. That would have completely missed the city of Joplin! Upon hearing that, residents of south Joplin (where the tornado struck) would have assumed they were not in danger, especially since the sirens were not sounded when this warning was issued and remained off until the tornado was causing major damage. 
AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions, at 5:16pm, told its two railroad clients in Joplin the tornado was moving east. The difference is indicated above.

The actual movement of the storm, derived from the Doppler wind data, is below. The movement is clearly east, but the NWS would again later misstate the storm's location and movement. This confusion was reflected in the media's coverage of the storm. 
The rotation surrounding the Joplin tornado as measured by the Springfield NWS radar.
Note the colors go from dark red and dark green (some rotation) to pinks and blues (violent rotation).
The strengthening trend in the tornado and its path are both clearly visible. 

#3. There were forecasts of a major tornado from their own organization, the National Weather Service. Here is the 11:30am tornado outlook issued by the NWS Storm Prediction Center in Norman, OK.
Ten percent is a number that should have gotten their attention. More to the point, the 10% is "hatched" which means there is a chance of a major tornado.  

The probabilities went up at 1:30pm when the NWS issued its tornado watch for Joplin and the surrounding area:
I have highlighted, in yellow, the pertinent information. The likelihood of tornadoes was "high" and the likelihood of a major tornado was "moderate." No clue? Factually incorrect. 

The rotation image above unambiguously shows a strong tornado moving east toward Joplin. Yet, where does the NWS say the tornado was three minutes before it crossed the city limits? 

Six miles northeast of Galena isn't anywhere near south Joplin! The entire message fails to mention south Joplin!

I interviewed Caitlin McArdle, meteorologist at KSNF TV in Joplin. She said she was "shocked" the tornado was moving into south Joplin. 

There are a number of, at best, questionable assertions made in the article but this should be enough to give you the idea. Because of this type of reporting, most Joplinites do not realize what actually occurred on May 22, 2011. I believe they deserve to know. 

But, there is a bigger issue. As long as this is viewed as an "award winning" performance (see article) it could happen again. That prospect terrifies me. 

There were other problems that day beyond the National Weather Service's. What was, in my opinion, a flawed siren activation strategy. And, the tornado itself was largely invisible so people could not see it and take cover for themselves.

As I wrote in When the Sirens Were Silent, criticizing people and institutions I greatly respect gives me no pleasure. I would much rather be singing the praises of the meteorological community as I did in Warnings. I wrote Sirens out of a sense of obligation: Science can only progress when we candidly examine our work. I'm hoping the book inspires that examination.


  1. Read this earlier today and thought you would like a heads up. I just got the AMS News You Can Use which included the following story that contradicts your research: Creating action-inspiring tornado warnings (http://www.knoxnews.com/news/2012/may/21/creating-action-inspiring-tornado-warnings/)

    Knoxville News Sentinel (AP) - 05/21/2012
    (ISNS) -- One year ago this week, 158 people died when a tornado with winds greater than 200 mph struck Joplin, Mo. Even though the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued tornado warnings and activated siren alerts ahead of time, it was clear that some people ignored, disregarded or waited too long to react to them.

  2. There is nothing in that story that contradicts my research.

  3. Mike, you posted the text from warning 30

    But the 5:17 warning was warning 31
    Which not only states that Joplin is in the path of the tornado but also references warning 30 as a _separate_ warning.

    The 5:24 update to warning 31 states:

  4. Unknown: All of this is covered in "When the Sirens Were Silent."

    With regard to your middle paragraph, there was NO other storm. The only tornado that occurred in Jasper Co. that day was the big tornado that moved across south Joplin.

    The NWS's output was a confusing mess.

  5. I just wanted to thank you Mike for writing about this. I am still irritated and I don’t even live in Joplin. I remember hearing a warning about a tornado that was heading toward Carl Junction. I don’t remember from whom, but it was probably from one of the local Springfield TV stations. The next thing I hear (again from the TV) is that there are reports of damage from the hospital and high school. I used to live in both Carl Junction and up the street from the hospital on Annie Baxter. They are no where near each other. I remember the interviews with people on the radio and TV, many of whom saying that there was no sirens.

    It is one thing for the NWS not to accept that mistakes were made, but to then for people to blame the dead and injured for not reacting fast enough is just beyond low. So, thank you Mike for speaking out. I have a sneaky suspicion that lawyers (and egos) are involved in this blame game.


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