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Did Global Warming Destroy My Hometown?

By Seth Fletcher, Popular Science Magazine
(article is courtesy of Popular Science magazine, a publication of Bonnier Corporation)

The tornado that destroyed my hometown was born in an otherwise unremarkable atmospheric collision over the American Central Plains. On May 22, 2011, a geostationary satellite 22,300 miles overhead recorded a large collection of cloud lines drifting over southeastern Kansas. At around 2 p.m, one of the cloud lines exploded, like a cartographic-scale dry-ice bomb. Dense white vapors poured from nothing, and over the next five hours the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration monitored the growing supercell thunderstorm as it drifted toward a three-letter abbreviation on the map: “JLN.”

Pre-Tornado: The Joplin, Missouri neighborhood where the author grew up. Credit: Google Maps. 

May 23, 2011: The exact same neighborhood, pictured the day after the deadliest single tornado in modern history. Credit: Aaron Fuhrman/Flickr Editorial/Getty Images. 

Just after 5 p.m., two storm chasers driving toward the western edge of Joplin, Mo., spotted a translucent set of tendrils reaching down from the storm’s low black thunderhead. Almost as quickly as they formed, the tendrils disappeared. And then things took a turn. A dark blob half a mile wide congealed and dropped from the clouds. As it touched the ground, it filled with sparks from ruptured power lines, like a jar of fireflies. At 5:41, the National Weather Service office in Springfield, Mo., issued this alert: NUMEROUS REPORTS OF TORNADO ON THE GROUND WEST OF JOPLIN AND POWER FLASHES.

The tornado intensified as it strafed the roofs and treetops of Joplin’s western suburbs. By the time it reached the city limits, where 49,000 people lived, it had evolved into an EF-5, the most destructive type of tornado on the Enhanced Fujita scale. Unlike EF-4s, which are merely “devastating,” EF-5s produce “incredible” damage. An EF-4 is powerful enough to scrape civilization off the planet in a matter of minutes. An EF-5 is more powerful still.

When the storm hit Joplin, the winds inside the funnel were spinning faster than 200 mph — yet the whole column was crawling forward at less than 10 mph, giving it time to wood-chip everything beneath it. The tornado produced a good deal of incredible, EF-5-worthy damage in the office park that surrounded St. John’s Hospital, one of the region’s major medical centers. In 45 seconds, it shifted the nine-story structure four inches off its foundation.

By then, the tornado was three quarters of a mile wide. As it tacked slightly to the north, it flattened a downtrodden swath of old Main Street. After gnawing through half a dozen intervening residential blocks, the tornado hit Joplin High School, a recently refurbished brick complex at the town’s middle-class core. Security cameras intended to monitor lunch-hour skippers now recorded surges of water that rendered the parking lot indistinguishable from a harbor in a hurricane. Inside, chairs and papers swarmed as the walls began to collapse.

The tornado churned on to the east, tagging its path with bizarre signatures — wood-piercing asphalt, rubber-piercing wood. It shaved away the neighborhood just east of the high school, including the little white one-story house where I spent my teenage years. It continued toward the main thoroughfare, Range Line Road, and destroyed a Home Depot, an Academy Sports & Outdoors, a Wal-Mart and a Pizza Hut, shotgunning shoppers with glass and metal and wood, burying some beneath cinder blocks, and needling others with blades of grass.

Meteorologists watching radar screens at a safe remove now saw a white-pink blob representing the tornado’s swirl of debris swing through the rest of the city like a wrecking ball. But when it reached the open pasture at Joplin’s eastern edge,

the tornado — as if it had been fueled by manmade structures and was now depleted — delivered a few dying spasms and vanished.

* * *

My wife and I were eating dinner at home in Brooklyn when we heard the news. Her sister called: There had been a tornado, and it sounded bad. Growing up in Joplin means growing up with tornado warnings, so I was certain this was yet another false alarm. Still, we moved to the couch and turned on the Weather Channel. Mike Bettes, one of the network’s on-camera meteorologists, was standing in a field of debris, talking to dazed Joplinites whose homes had just been leveled. At first we thought the crew was filming outside of town, in the country. A couple of houses down? Not so bad for late May in southwest Missouri. Then the camera turned and landed on St. John’s Hospital. Windows blasted out, every surrounding structure demolished, it looked like the backdrop from a high-budget zombie movie. The hospital is in the middle of town. It’s also about half a mile from my dad’s house. On camera, Bettes choked up, turned his head, and broke into tears. That’s when we freaked out.

Related Coverage from Climate Central 


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We started calling, texting, posting urgent Facebook messages asking family and friends for information. I haven’t lived in Joplin since I left for college, but my parents, grandparents, and plenty of aunts, uncles, cousins and old friends still live in the area. Same goes for my wife, another Joplin native. No phone calls were getting through, but our parents texted back quickly: They were fine, and so were their homes. Throughout the evening it became obvious that the storm was extraordinarily severe. Nonetheless, it wasn’t until the morning that we realized that the damage reports that had been streaming in over Facebook weren’t isolated. One continuous stream of demolition connected them all.

The tornado destroyed 20 percent of the property in Joplin, killed 161 people, and injured 1,150 more, all in a town with just 49,000 residents. That doesn’t quite make it the deadliest tornado in history. The worst was the Tri-State tornado of March 18, 1925, which in three and a half hours killed 695 people in Missouri, Illinois and Indiana. But because the Tri-State tornado (and the other five storms responsible for more deaths than the Joplin tornado) happened before the invention of modern weather-monitoring instruments, it’s unclear whether they involved single funnel clouds or entire swarms. As a result, the Joplin tornado may be the deadlist singe tornado on record. 

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