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Did Global Warming Destroy My Hometown?

We drove through the damage for another four miles or so, until the trail of debris ended as abruptly as it had begun. The sight of still-standing trees on the east end of town was a relief. Altogether the tornado destroyed 6,954 homes and caused at least $3 billion in damage. In the following weeks, the city would begin bulldozing the structures that were beyond repair. Dump trucks would cart away some 1.5 million cubic yards of rubble, depositing most of it in a landfill near the abandoned lead and zinc mines west of town.

A view of a Joplin street 10 days after the tornado hit. Credit: xpda/flickr

Later that night, my dad and I talked about how the tornado would reshape Joplin. “When you come back a year from now,” he said, “there’s going to be a strip of open pasture running through the middle of town.”

And then what? My stepmother, a real-estate agent, predicted that in the process of rebuilding, landowners would combine small, old lots into larger plots that could hold the McMansions 21st-century Missourians have come to love and expect. Yet by the time those homes were built, plenty of former Joplinites would surely have relocated for good. All week she had been selling houses to dislocated residents who were desperate to find a place to live. Elderly couples who hadn’t moved in 50 years were buying new homes sight unseen. Houses in Joplin are generally cheap and abundant, but now there weren’t enough to go around.

* * *

Meteorologist once thought it was impossible to predict a tornado and, even if it weren’t, that warning the public could cause mass panic and do more harm than the weather itself. Then on March 25, 1948, Ernest J. Fawbush and Robert C. Miller, meteorologists at the Tinker Air Force Base in central Oklahoma, issued the first tornado forecast, predicting more than three hours in advance that a squall line headed for the base was likely to produce a twister. Sure enough, a tornado ripped through the base three hours later, making Fawbush and Miller look like geniuses. Three years after that, the two founded the Severe Storms Forecast Center at Tinker, where their continued success in predicting storms made them moderately famous. As the Saturday Evening Post put it in 1951, the Fawbush-Miller system meant that “the Oklahoma farmer who said he always depended upon flying cornstalks and bed quilts to warn him of an approaching twister will now have ample time to walk — not run — to his ‘scarehole.’”

Fawbush and Miller’s bureau has since grown into the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center (SPC), which issues watches for severe thunderstorms and tornadoes nationwide. “We are to tornadoes as the National Hurricane Center is to hurricanes,” said Greg Carbin, a warning-coordination meteorologist at the SPC. “We’re the national center of expertise related to severe-storm forecasting across the continental United States. But unlike the Hurricane Center, we really don’t have a season.”

Using two geosynchronous satellites and a nationwide network of approximately 120 Doppler radar stations, forecasters watch for the conditions that spawn severe thunderstorms and tornadoes — typically a mixture of dry, cold air from the west with warm, moist air from the south. Carbin and his colleagues can often tell days in advance when weather conditions will be right for tornado formation. When a tornado seems likely, the agency hands responsibility over to local Weather Forecast Offices, which use radar to look for the telltale “hook echo” emitted by radio waves bouncing off a tornado’s cyclonic winds. If forecasters detect it, they upgrade the tornado watch to a tornado warning.

The system usually works pretty well. Carbin says that several days before the other great tornado disaster of 2011 — the epic three-day outbreak that began on April 25, in which at least 178 individual twisters swarmed the American Southeast, killing 321 people — forecasters could see that in a few days, the atmosphere would be primed for a massive tornado outbreak. “We knew this was a bad deal,” Carbin said. Still, no matter how far in advance forecasters see tornado-ripe conditions forming, predicting the time and place an individual funnel cloud will form is profoundly more difficult.

A NASA satellite passes over the supercell of thunderstorms before it racked over Joplin, MO on May 22, 2011. Credit: NASA

The Joplin tornado, unlike the April outbreak, gave little warning. “Joplin was a typical May severe-weather day on the Southern Plains,” Carbin said. “Why that particular storm formed in southeast Kansas and why it evolved the way it did — it’s not something you’d be able to pick out and say: This is the storm of the day.”

Until late in the afternoon on May 22, forecasters were saying that severe hail was the likeliest threat from the thunderstorm brewing over the Central Plains. Then at 5:17 p.m., after coordinating with Carbin’s team in Norman, Okla., the Storm Prediction Center in Springfield issued the tornado warning that TV and radio stations in Joplin broadcast to their viewers and listeners. The system gave the people of Joplin 24 minutes of warning — enough notice to qualify the Joplin storm as well warned.

Still, in June, when a team of National Weather Service meteorologists traveled to Joplin to interview survivors and extract lessons from the chaos, they found problems. To some extent, local warning agencies and the NWS crossed signals, which may have caused confusion among the public. But the biggest concern was what the investigators called siren fatigue.

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