Joplin Tornado - Courtesy NWS Springfield
We’ve all done it. A Tornado Warning is issued, but we’ll continue on with our daily lives. Change the channel, look outside, call a neighbor, but probably not go to the basement unless we see it coming. Then, something catastrophic happens. In May 2011, an EF-5 tornado tore through Joplin, Missouri. Sadly, nearly 160 people lost their lives. This was the first and only triple-digit-fatality tornado event observed since the Tornado Warning was introduced in 1957. Many people in the Joplin area believed that the tornado was headed north of town, according to a post-disaster survey. Furthermore, people don’t react and head for shelter so readily because often times when a Tornado Warning is issued, there is no physical tornado.
The National Weather Service is aiming to change peoples’ reactions and the way they perceive severe weather alerts. While research is still ongoing, the National Weather Service found out through numerous surveys and studies that when a Warning is issued, people usually ask themselves one or more of these questions:
- Where is the hazard?
- Has it been confirmed?
- How bad is it?
- When will it arrive?
- How long will it last?
- What is the meteorologist’s confidence in it occurring?
People often dismiss severe weather alerts such as a Tornado Warning because often times there is no tornado. A Tornado Warning is issued by the National Weather Service if tornadic conditions are observed on Doppler Radar and/or an actual tornado is observed on the ground. Many times, a Doppler-indicated tornado is just that…..storm rotation on radar. It has been suggested that the NWS issue some type of alert between a Tornado Watch and a Tornado Warning.
Joplin Tornado Aftermath - Courtesy KVUE-TV
The general public, in a way, has been ‘trained’ to not react when the tornado sirens sound off. A parallel that has been brought up many times is the story of ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf.’ This is part of the reason why the Joplin tornado was so devastating. Between 2008 and 2011, Jasper County, Missouri (where Joplin is located) was issued a Tornado Warning 34 times. Of those 34 warnings, only 2 tornadoes were actually on the ground!
Other reasons why the Joplin tornado was such a catastrophic event include the fact that the tornado was invisible along most of its path. The general public is solely dependent on the public warning system, although many advances with today’s social media (Twitter, Facebook, Text Alerts) have helped with getting the word out. Also, there was some disconnect between the Storm Prediction Center and the National Weather Service Springfield, Missouri office. The NWS office did not have enough updates, perhaps, during the event.
Another major problem was the Joplin warning siren system. The sirens were not sounded properly for the tornadic storm that impacted the city. They were sounded prematurely for another storm and the sirens were shut off before the threat had completely ended.
There were many things to learn after the Joplin disaster. The National Weather Service has been working diligently to come up with better warning methods, more community input, better partnerships with local media and government. In 2012, NWS offices in Kansas & Missouri began testing ‘Impact Based Warnings.’ This type of warning will use strong words (such as mass devastation, unsurvivable, and catastrophic) to connect the severity of a storm with its expected impact. The goal is to more effectively communicate the dangers of an approaching storm so people can understand the risks they will face.
Posted under news, Project: Tornado, safety, severe weather, statistics, tornado, weather
This post was written by Joe Astolfi on October 9, 2012