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On the Radar


Jonathan is an emergency management coordinator with a passion for all things weather. He currently lives in south-central Pennsylvania with his wife and son.

One Year Later -- Remembering the Joplin Tornado

May 22, 2012

One year ago, on May 22, 2011, nearly one-third of the city of Joplin, Mo., was lost to an EF-5 tornado.

The tornado seemingly came from nowhere; at least is seemed that way to many in Joplin. There was no tell-tale funnel churning on the western horizon. There were no tornado sirens – at least not this time – and the only tornado warning the public received seemed to indicate the tornado would pass to the north of the city. All those in Joplin saw was a massive black wall descending on the western side of the city. Within that wall was one of the most destructive and deadly tornadoes in this nation’s history.
Destroyed homes and debris cover the ground in Joplin, Mo. The tornado that hit the city is considered the single most deadly tornado since at least 1950.  Photo credit: Julie Denesha / Getty Images
The particular storm that spawned the Joplin super-tornado was one of many tornado producing cells that day across the Midwest. At 5:32 PM, CDT, the tornado initially touched down on the southwestern edge of the city limits. Damage was sporadic and minor only a few trees were uprooted. But the tornado soon swelled into a monster, the evolution of which was captured by a pair of storm chasers who happened to be in the right place at the right time (video link).   Another pair of chasers recorded their trip into Joplin following the tornado.  They plea with officers to start the sirens which still had not sounded and try reporting it by phone (video link).
The storm churned east-northeast, growing in intensity as it moved into more densely populated neighborhoods. It seemed to feed off the structures it was destroying. By 5:41 PM, the storm was well within the city. The storm swelled to nearly a mile in width, packing winds in excess of 200MPH. Some estimates suggest the storm winds topped 250 MPH at its peak.
Video evidence from the day suggests many were unaware of what was happening to their city – or what was about to happen to them. One such video shows a van full of storm chasers frantically trying to drive south through the city. The storm is clearly visible on their right and ground-level purple, blue and green flashes suggest power lines are being ripped down. In the background we see people casually going about their business during the dinner hour. Some are trying to get home to their families others are seen pulling into a fast food restaurant drive through. It’s heart wrenching because I’m certain that some of those in the video either perished or were injured.
By the time the tornado left the city some estimates say as much as one-third of the city was left in ruins. Approximately 8,000 structures were destroyed including: one of the city’s hospitals, a nursing home, 10 public school buildings, and the commercial center of the city. Major box stores such as Home Depot and Wal-Mart were leveled with customers inside. Some who would not survive. 
In total, 161 people were killed, making it the deadliest tornado in 60 years. To date, damage estimates stands around $2.8 million; although some expect that number could climb to and exceed $3.0 million. At $2.8 million, it is the costliest tornado since at least 1950.
Despite the carnage and tragedy that the storm left behind there are also stories of hope coming from Joplin. In addition to federal and state disaster aid, donors from across the country and around the world have stepped up for Joplin.
Agweb.com’s own Margy Fischer reported that manufacturers Vermeer Corp and Kubota Tractor Corp pitched in to help with stump removal and tree planting. Donations from the United Arab Emirates helped purchase new laptops for school students to replace lost text books. In addition, the United Arab Emirates recently donated $5 million to Mercy Hospital (formerly St. John’s which was destroyed in the storm) to develop a new pediatrics wing and neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).
The school district reopened in temporary buildings and Wal-Mart and Home Depot have both returned too. But what has remained through all the blood, sweat and tears is the determination of those who live in Joplin. Their hard work and dedication combined with help from the outside – both financial and physical – have ensured that this city will survive and will be rebuilt better than ever. That is a true testament to the human spirit.
(Authors note:  Videos used and mentioned in this article have been attached as link only, not embedded.  I did this so those who lived through that day would not have to relive the nightmare over again.  If you choose to watch the videos, that is up to you.  I'll warn you, there are graphic scenes and language in each one.)
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