Friday, March 22, 2013

Fanciful Story of the Joplin Warnings

Several people have brought to my attention the new book, Storm Kings, by Lee Sandlin. Of specific concern is the narration about the Joplin tornado.  As most of you know, I wrote a book about the Joplin tornado, When the Sirens Were Silent. The print version of Sirens has sold out but the Kindle version is still available for the very reasonable cost of $2.99.

I found Mr. Sandlin's writing about the Joplin tornado to be shockingly inaccurate. His comments are quoted verbatim in black. My comments are in blue. This is found at location 4232 of the ebook:
  • Everything about the professional response happened exactly as it was supposed to... The tornado watch was timely and accurate. Nothing else about the warnings that day went as it should have. 
  • the warnings were going out with a lead time of twenty minutes. The warning said the tornado was headed northeast which would miss Joplin.
  • The helicopters of the local TV stations were in flight. None of the TV stations in the Joplin - Pittsburg television market, nor anyone else, was flying helicopters near the storm. 
  • the chase teams were hurtling down the highways, not only transmitting real-time data and video about the tornado, I am unaware of any live video of the Joplin tornado being broadcast by a chase team and I know there was none being broadcast by helicopter. 
  • but stopping to warn the police on the ground that it was coming. This is correct and the person who did this was Jeff Piotrowski. I write about this in Sirens.
  • From everywhere came the moan of the civil-defense sirens, which seemed to have panicked and baffled the townspeople. The sirens were sounded from 5:11 to 5:14 for a tornado warning that did not include the eventual path of the Joplin tornado. When people turned on the TV upon hearing the sirens they were told, the location of the warning was north of Joplin. When the NWS issued the tornado warning at 5:17 that did include the eventual path of the tornado, the sirens were not sounded -- the sirens were silent! And, if someone was watching TV or listening to NOAA weather radio, they heard the tornado was over Riverton, KS moving northeast which would miss Joplin. The sirens were not sounded again until 5:38 when the tornado was already doing F-4 damage. The reason the people were "baffled" is because of these errors in the warning system. Think about it: They were told at 5:14 the tornado warning did not include Joplin and they went about their business. Without the sirens sounding again (until the tornado was at Joplin's doorstep) they had no way to know their situation had transitioned to mortal danger!
  • The inflowing winds were so fierce they scoured the bark off trees and carried trucks through the air for more than a city block. This is absolute nonsense. None of this occurred. The damage Sandlin describes was caused by the tornado, not "inflow winds." 
  • It was hard to think that there had been any progress at all since the time of the Tri-State Tornado. Again, nonsense. Meteorology has made huge progress in tornadoes, in hurricanes and in preventing commercial airline crashes. There is an excellent book that tells that dramatic story.
You verify the above by viewing this towercam video as the tornado was moving into Joplin:

The video begins with meteorologist Caitlin McArtle talking about a funnel cloud near Galena (inaccurate location provided by NWS) in a routine tone of voice at 5:37 p.m.  She is being assisted by newscaster Jeremiah Cook. The tornado sirens are silent as the tornado approached the city.They begin to see power flashes which, at first, they attribute to lightning, again, in a routine tone of voice. The sirens come back on (5:38) and they realize the tornado is on their doorstep. They begin shouting to the audience to take cover.

When I interviewed Caitlin about the tornado when I was writing Sirens she told me she was "shocked the tornado was in that location [moving into Joplin]."

As to the "inflow winds" ripping bark off trees, I have viewed numerous videos of the Joplin tornado, including Jaime Green's (not shown) and the winds are relatively calm ahead of the storm. Look at this video from chasers on Ridgeline Road in east Joplin. They are in the exact path of the storm in the first two minutes of the video (the shopping center with Jo-Ann Fabrics and Radio Shack at 1:15). Even though this strip mall is moments from being destroyed, look at the trees behind the shopping center. They are hardly moving. You can hear the sirens at the start of the video. But, the sirens are turned off! Listen at 1:30 when they stop talking -- you can't hear the sirens any more.

Finally, at about 1:55, one of the chasers says he is worried about "gigantic hailstones." The NWS mis-interpreted their radar and warned Joplin of "baseball size hail" -- when what they were seeing was debris lofted by the tornado.

I have not read the rest of Storm Kings so I cannot comment on whether these inaccuracies are confined to the Joplin coverage or are more general.

Some in the meteorological profession have buried their heads in the sand when it comes to the considerable issues in Joplin. As long as they keep telling the public that "the professional [meteorological] response happened exactly as it was supposed to" -- another Joplin could occur.

One hundred sixty-one lost their lives that day -- the worst tornado death toll since Weather Bureau tornado warnings (as we would define them today) began in 1957. It is long past time that weather science stops blaming the victims and spinning fanciful tales about the warnings that horrible day.


  1. So what do you think the problem was here? Did he just follow along with the "safe" version of the meteorolgical response rather than digging deeper? There is obviously a huge discrepancy between what you discovered and what he wrote.

  2. Jeana, I have no idea. On Facebook, several NWS meteorologists are expressing astonishment at what Mr. Sandlin has written about Joplin.

    There seem to be two narratives about Joplin: What really happened ("When the Sirens Were Silent") and the "official" version as expressed in the NWS's Service Assessment.

    That said, none of the TV stations in Joplin even own helicopters. That didn't come from the NWS Service Assessment. So, I have no ready answer as to how that account of the Joplin tornado could be so inaccurate.

  3. Mike...Initially, I kept hearing reports of a tornado near 7th and Schifferdecker Ave. This is about 2.5 miles north of the actual tornado touchdown. So a bit later I hear an updated report by local media that the tornado by now should be near 7th and Rangeline area which is about four miles east of Schifferdecker. In Jeff Petroski's video you see him driving up next to a JPD officer's car and screaming at the officer to get the sirens sounded. The officer was setting near 7th and Blackcat Road just outside the city limits. Could it be when the officer called the report into dispatch the officer or the dispatch person took it as if the tornado was near the 7th and Blackcat or the Shifferdecker location? There was definitely a bit of misinformation in the beginning. Note: I was at home, I had been monitoring the parent storm via radar since earlier that afternoon as it developed in SE KS. I had to be at work that night at 6PM at St. John's Regional Medical Center. I normally never leave the house till about 10 till 6. But with the sirens going off before 5:30 and not sure of a confirmed tornado on the ground, I left the house 30 minutes early. I got to the hospital parking lot about five to seven minutes later. Being a trained weather spotter for ten plus years, I knew something was not right in the western sky. I then saw the beast, I ran into the medical office building and took cover in the stairwell next to an elevator as the ceiling began to crumble around me. The sounds seemed to have quit for a moment, then started back up again. Anyway to make a long story short, after that we rescued patients from the floors for about two hours, then I walked home and the rest is history. A final thought, my son and another co-worker took turns operating the KSNF TV tower cam. So much more could be said.

  4. Todd,

    Thank you. This goes along with the accounts from my research for "Sirens." If you wish to tell me more, msmith AT accuweather DOT com .

    In addition to the confusion of the report at 7th and Schifferdecker and in addition to the inaccurate report of a funnel cloud at Galena at 5:36, the NWS at 5:38 reported the tornado "6 miles northeast of Galena" moving northeast. Of course, this is well north of JLN and was moving away from JLN. At 5:38, you see on the tower cam video the power flashes just west of the city limits as the tornado was doing F-4 intensity damage to homes.

    Sandlin is right that Joplinites were "baffled" and "confused" but it was these contradictory reports that caused that confusion.


  5. Mike,

    Regarding Sandlin's claims of "helicopters in flight," on pages 3 and 4 of "Sirens" you mention that KMBC in Kansas City was broadcasting tornado warnings early that afternoon and had its helicopter in the air showing live video of tornadoes on the ground east of KC. This was about 4 hours prior to the Joplin tornado and was part of the same large-scale weather system, which spawned tornadoes as far north as Minneapolis.

    Granted, KMBC was covering completely different tornadoes, nowhere near Joplin, and it can't be classified as a "local" TV station for that area. (Are the KC television stations viewable on cable or satellite in the Joplin area?) Nevertheless, helicopter coverage of tornadoes did occur on the same day in an adjacent major media market, so could this be the root of Sandlin's misinformation?


  6. Elaine, Sandlin is explicitly giving an account of the Joplin tornado. Yes, KMBC had their helicopter covering a tornado east of KC -- 170 miles from Joplin. That coverage had nothing to do with the Joplin tornado.

    The FCC has "nonduplication" rules that will not allow KMBC to be seen where there is an ABC affiliate, KODE, in Joplin regardless of whether a viewer is watching cable or satellite.


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