The Anniversary of the Joplin Tornado

Photo by Jaime Green
On May 22, 2011, Joplin was struck by an EF-5 intensity starting at 5:41pm. Unlike most tornadoes in the central United States, this tornado was "rain-wrapped" and thus invisible. The photo above happened to capture the tornado during a split-second "power flash" when the tornado caused electrical wires to spark. A few moments later, the tornado moved over Jaime's location. Below is what it looked like on approach. It was completely invisible along its path. 
So, since the people of Joplin could not see the tornado, their only hope was the tornado warnings issued by the National Weather Service (and the downstream warning system including sirens, radio and television). Unfortunately, the NWS's warnings were of very poor quality and the siren activation misled everyone. As a result, one hundred sixty-one people were killed in, by far, the worst single tornado death toll of the warning era (64 years). I tell the story in my book, When the Sirens Were Silent: How the Warning System Failed a Community.

Helping to prevent another Joplin has been my professional passion since I did the research for the book. The NWS has been in denial about what went wrong in that tornado and they continue to be in denial regarding their recent tornado warning failures (see: here, here, and here for the the major warning failures of just the past 16 days). 

I guess it is to be expected that federal agencies do not have a high level of accountability. FEMA has been subject to considerable criticism of its disaster responses and, while I have my suspicions, we have no way of knowing whether that criticism is fair. The same is true of the Red Cross and various state and local agencies over the past decade. So, we must have a National Disaster Review Board that would, hopefully, do for disaster safety and response what the NTSB has done for transportation. For more information, please go my original postings here and here

Otherwise, another Joplin -- with its unnecessarily large loss of life -- is inevitable. 


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