The tornado which hit this town in 2011 brings with it many insights for emergency managers trying to ensure that warnings change people’s behaviour when they are confronted with a disaster with very little or no warning.

Joplin’s a town of about 50,000 people on the south eastern corner of Missouri, US. It’s in “tornado alley” and many people in the region have experienced tornadoes before.

At 5.30 pm on  Sunday May 22, 2011, a tornado about a kilometre wide, travelled across the residential areas of the town, just missing the CBD, but destroying thousands of homes, a nine storey hospital, a Walmart, big sports stores, schools and municipal buildings. The damage path was 9 km long.

158 people were killed and more than one thousand injured. According to a report by the US National Weather Service this was the “single deadliest tornado in U.S. history since modern record-keeping began in 1950.”  It traveled 35 km on the ground and the maximum wind speed was estimated at 321 km/h. Compare this to reports from the BoM on Tropical Cyclone Yasi of March 2011, which hit North Queensland with maximum wind gusts of 285km/h.

Joplin High School, Franklin Technology Center and Irving Elementary School were destroyed. The roofs were blown off East Middle School and Cecil Floyd Elementary.

St. John’s Regional Medical Center took a direct hit from the tornado and was eventually knocked down. The local newspaper said the town’s other major hospital was quickly “overwhelmed” by injured people. “People were being delivered in pickup trucks, lying on doors and pieces of plywood that served as makeshift stretchers. Also overwhelmed was an emergency medical center that was set up at Memorial Hall.”

A Joplin street in September 2012, showing what the suburbs would have been like before the tornado struck. Pic: Ianm


Damaged homes and buildings after the tornado: Pic NOAA

As with many catastrophic emergencies, the death toll is not a good measure of how the community responded to this event.

The NWS report says: “Some people took shelter in appropriate locations, but did not survive. Others mistakenly drove their vehicles into the tornado path, but somehow lived to tell of it.”

The  NWS comprehensive survey receommended many changes to the warning system: the rest of this post is from the report. 

The team determined that a number of factors contributed to the high death toll. Through interviews with more than 100 Joplin residents, the team found that societal response to warnings is highly complex and involves a number of factors, such as risk perception, overall credibility of warnings and warning communications.

The report includes a number of key recommendations:

  • Improve warning communications to convey a sense of urgency for extreme events. This will compel people to take immediate life-saving action;
  • Collaborate with partners who communicate weather warnings to develop GPS-based warning communications, including the use of text messaging, smart phone apps, mobile communications technologies, in addition to upgrades to the Emergency Alert System and NOAA Weather Radio;
  • Collaborate more throughout the weather enterprise to ensure that weather warning messages sent via television, radio, NOAA Weather Radio, local warning systems such as sirens – are consistent to reduce confusion and stress the seriousness of the threat; and
  • Continue to increase community preparedness