The Joplin tornado neatly encapsulates all the problems inherent with multiple, simultaneous, complex emergencies. The US National Weather Service (NWS) was widely praised for its work. The relationship between the warning providers and the disseminators is crucial.  

 It is fair to say there is much soul searching at the NWS in the US when people die in weather related disasters. It’s the same in Australia, and no doubt everywhere else. Weather forecasters are scientists but they understand their work, at its best, will save lives.

The problems confronting the forecasters at Joplin were the same as those wherever  multiple simultaneous complex weather events occur. (I call these MSC events) For most of us that’s thunderstorms and hail forecasts, but the same problems were experienced by fire fighters during the Black Saturday Bushfires in Victoria in 2009 and to a lesser extent in the flash flooding of Grantham in Qld in 2011.

In the case of the Joplin tornado the public had to contend with the following bewildering array of events – and many in the disaster community will have an understanding of exactly this type of scenario:

– No big tornado for a generation, even though the town is in :”Tornado alley.”

– Thunderstorm forecasts consistently for two days

– Thunderstorm and hail forecasts all day

– Tornado watches issued a couple of hours before he main event

– Multiple tornadoes

– Two blasts on the town tornado warning sirens. 

These events create massive uncertainty, and warnings, unless very carefully compiled and placed in context and with a sense of priority, will lead to confusion and the public quite naturally will hesitate to act.

Remains of school, 16 months after the tornado Pic Ianm

This is how the NWS reported on warnings from the Joplin tornado – taken from its review. (Items in barckets are mine)

“A series of complex meteorological events and interactions took place during the afternoon hours of May 22 that eventually resulted in the devastating EF-5 tornado. A Tornado Watch  was issued at 1.30 pm for all of southwest Missouri.

A routine Area Forecast Discussion (a  type of weather service “heads up”)  was issued at 2.37 pm as well as  at 3.47 pm. Forecaster focus remained on very large hail as the main severe weather threat, but isolated tornadoes were also deemed a possibility due to the very unstable air mass in place and sufficient low level wind structure. The first thunderstorms of the day developed between 2 pm and 3 pm  over southeast

As severe storms moved east, forecasters became increasingly concerned about their tornado potential and issued the first Tornado Warnings of the day at 4.25 pm and 4.51 pm for counties west of Joplin. At 4.33 pm forecasters briefed the Jasper County (which encompasses Joplin) Emergency Manager on the severe storms to the west.

A tornado Warning was issued at 5.09 pm for western Jasper County, including the northeast part of the city of Joplin but was for a different storm than the one that eventually hit the city.

This alert was followed by a new Tornado Warning  at 5.17 pm CDT for the next storm to the south for southwestern Jasper County and portions of neighboring counties which included all of Joplin. (Another coordination call was made to the Jasper County Emergency Manager at 5.25 pm  to update him on the Tornado Warning and latest information concerning the storm.)

At this point, the severe thunderstorm west of Joplin had become the dominant thunderstorm in the region and was poised to produce a violent tornado. Based on storm surveys and radar imagery, it was estimated that initial tornado touchdown occurred just west of Joplin at 5.34 pm, moved into western portions of Joplin around 5.36 pm. The town had 17 minutes of lead time for touchdown and 19 minutes lead time before the tornado entered Joplin.

The first indication of a confirmed tornado was issued via another Severe Weather Statement at 5.39 pm that stated,

“At 534 pm CDT…trained weather spotters reported a tornado near Galena” and that “This storm is moving into the city of Joplin.” The tornado eventually dissipated around 6.12 pm.

Unfortunately, the tornado developed rapidly on the southwestern outskirts of a densely populated area and had moved through much of the city before the size and violence of the tornado was apparent to warning forecasters. They could not not issue a Severe Weather Statement with a “Tornado Emergency.”

Amongst the general public, the majority of residents had little idea there was a threat of severe weather prior to Sunday, May 22. About half of those interviewed, reported learning of the possibility of severe weather in the hours leading up to the tornado. Just less than half reported their first indication of a severe weather threat was in the moments just prior to the tornado.

 According to the (Joplin Emergency Manager, IM) the first 3-minute siren activation, at 5.11 pm resulted primarily from funnel cloud reports to the west of Joplin in southeastern Kansas (and was not based on NSW information! IM)

Residents heard the initial siren activation and then the warning details were provided by the emergency telephone system (called Reverse 911 – IM), and assumed the activation was for the area to the north. In one example, a man was clearly confused by the string of warning information he received and processed from various sources.

1. Heard first sirens at 511 pm CDT (estimated 30-35 minutes before tornado hit).

2. Went to the TV and heard NWR warning from TV override that indicated tornado near airport drive 7 miles north of his location.

3. Went on porch with family and had a cigar. Looked like a regular thunderstorm.

4. Heard second sirens (estimated 27 minutes later).

5. Thought something wasn‘t right so went inside and turned local TV stations on.

6. Saw on TV several colored counties for tornado warnings, but regular programming was still on and thought the threat was still to the north.

7. Heard his wife yell “basement,” Grabbed the cat and told son to put his shoes on.

8. Tornado hit as they reached the top of the basement stairs, destroying their home.