The Joplin Tornado: NOVA Got It Wrong

Kathleen and I knew yesterday evening was going to be special. I was especially looking forward to Mr. Tornado because of the many hours I spent assisting the producers. And, I was also looking forward to the NOVA episode on tornadoes that immediately preceded it.

As sublime as yesterday's Mr. Tornado was (review below), the NOVA episode was just awful. Error after error after error plus just plain falsehoods. For example, the image below was most definitely not how Joplin appeared ten minutes before the tornado.
Doppler radar was not "introduced" in 1973. Major tornadoes are not getting worse because of global warming, et cetera. I do not wish to produce a litany of its errors. If you want to learn the history of the tornado warning system, I recommend my book, Warnings.

But there is one item from NOVA about which I do want to focus: like the movie Twister, NOVA kept harping on warnings needing more lead time. The research of Dr. Kevin Simmons and others convincingly shows just the opposite: The ideal "lead time" (the interval between receiving a warning and the arrival of the storm) is 12-15 minutes. Much longer, and deaths increase. People will crouch in a dark closet or bath for only so long.
The gentleman (above) they interviewed in Joplin is incorrect about the warning "system." The one we have works amazingly well. That is not to say warnings cannot be improved. They need to be made more accurate (fewer false alarms, smaller in size, etc.). But, the idea of a "one hour tornado warning" is dangerous and will not save lives.

As to Joplin in particular, the warnings that day were simply wrong. They were so wrong, they were misleading -- which is why 161 died. That is the topic of my book, When the Sirens Were Silent.

P.S., On a personal note: Today is the anniversary of the F-5, 1957, Ruskin Heights Tornado. It was the day that transformed my life: not only did it determine my career, it played a significant role in getting acquainted with my future wife, Kathleen.
"Life" magazine
The day after, my mother drove a neighbor and my brothers down Bennington Street (circled) where I had the impulse, "Anything that could do all of this had to be pretty interesting." It was the day, at the age of five, I knew I wanted to be a meteorologist. What a career it has been! Thank you to my family, friends and colleagues for coming along for the ride. 


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