Why Was the Tornado in Joplin, MO So Deadly? – update

I have been wondering why so many deaths occurred in Joplin, and I have tried to find out how much warning residents had . [I now know 20 minutes is the answer to the easy question. ]  A fuller account of the deadly nature of the story can be found in the Christian Science Monitor article, May 23, titled Joplin, Missouri, tornado: Warnings pale in season of violent twisters. It noted that residents of Joplin, Missouri, had about 20 minutes of warning before a tornado strike Sunday. But this spring, early warnings have not been enough to prevent high death tolls from tornadoes.

A tornado that claimed at least 89 lives in Joplin, Missouri, on Sunday is part of a disturbing pattern in a spring of violent weather.  A series of tornado outbreaks in April and May have now killed more than 400 Americans. Officials in Joplin, which is still reeling from the tornado, say sirens went off about 20 minutes before the twister hit, but given the fluid situation on the ground, it’s still not possible to know why so many people died.

On average, tornado deaths in the United States have gone from 8 per 1 million people in 1925 to 0.11 per 1 million people today – a trend largely attributed to early-warning systems fed by advanced meteorology and the introduction of Doppler radar.

Yet the stunning death tolls from tornadoes this spring raise new questions about government subsidies for storm shelters, the psychology of warning response, the possibility of limited tornado evacuations, and the argument that tornado warning and response should be considered a national security issue.

“As big as these events have been, people are putting politics aside and asking questions they weren’t willing to ask a year ago,” says Kevin Simmons, an economist at Austin College in Sherman, Texas, who has studied tornado casualty tolls. “After the Oklahoma City tornado in 1999, we were horrified by 36 people dying. We’re now talking about hundreds.”

The sheer power of the storm systems, which have been produced by unusual jet-stream dips bringing strong cold fronts into the Midwest and South, is the main factor in the death toll, researchers say. April saw a record-breaking 600 tornadoes spawn across the US, many of them powerful enough to crush houses and malls. Researchers have to go back to a massive 1974 tornado outbreak and then back to the 1930s to find storms of similar magnitude and impact.

May 24,  CNN. Missouri tornado deadliest in decades. CNN, May 24. The tornado that struck Joplin, Missouri, Sunday killed 118 people, authorities said Tuesday, making it the deadliest single U.S. tornado since modern record-keeping began more than 60 years ago.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon said Tuesday morning the death toll has risen to 118 and the number of deaths is expected to rise as rescuers find more bodies in the rubble. [A twister in Flint, Michigan, in 1953 killed 116 people, according to the National Weather Service.]

May 25, CNN. Second round of storms send high winds but no tornadoes through Joplin. Some additional details about the response efforts are in this article in today’s Washington Post.

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6 Responses to Why Was the Tornado in Joplin, MO So Deadly? – update

  1. Michael Hart says:

    Have people started comparing and trying to explain the difference between the death toll in Joplin and that (3) in the June 1 tornado in the Springfield, MA area?

  2. Michael Hart says:

    What does it cost to build a small basement hole in a pad? It surprises me that this isn’t code, at least in places like Joplin MO. Doubles as storage or a nice place to escape to on a hot night.

  3. Lindsay says:

    I second Mr. Palin’s comment…I grew up in Nebraska, and when the sirens blared many people went outside to look instead of immediately taking shelter. Some years the sirens would go off almost on a daily basis and often nothing happened. It’s the old “cry wolf” theory at work.

    I have noticed as I’ve listened to survivor stories, that most people mentioned taking cover in bathrooms instead of basements/storm shelters. I’m under the assumption that not many homes in Joplin and across the south do not have basements. The only way to survive an F4 or F5 is to be in a subterranean shelter…as we saw in Mississippi/Alabama and Joplin, the homes were essentially swept off the foundations. No wonder so many lost their lives if they were not in basements.

  4. Philip J. Palin says:

    Claire, A hypothesis based on personal experience: I grew up in tornado country. There were lots of watches and warnings. We knew the difference between a tornado siren and a fire siren. My little town was never seriously hit. But we had several sightings. I specifically remember at age 12 or so running into the street — along with most of my neighbors — to watch the tail of a tornado bobbing in and out of the clouds over our heads. Unless — until — we suffer personal consequence, many of us tend to discount present risk.

  5. Scott says:

    The tornado was so deadly because it was a direct hit to the hospital. Here in Tuscaloosa, the tornado came within a quarter of a mile of our hospital. If it had directly hit our hospital, our death toll would have been closer to about 500, not the 41-45 we claim to have now (Source; one of the E.R. doctors at the hospital). The hospital treated over 1000 patients with storm related injuries, about 1/4 of those injuries were minor, another 1/4 of the injuries were serious, but the last half of those injuries were life threatening.

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