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The Joplin Tornado, One Year Later: Where Does it Rank?

The ferocious tornado that tore the city of Joplin, Mo., apart exactly one year ago today stunned the nation with its tragic death toll and staggering damage. The twister’s winds were estimated to be more than 200 mph, making the tornado an EF-5 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, which measures a tornado’s intensity. It devastated the city of 50,000, killing 161 and injuring more than 1,000. The Joplin tornado was the first single tornado in the U.S. to result in more than 100 fatalities since a tornado struck Flint, Mich., in 1953.

Tornado damage in Joplin, Mo. Credit: National Weather Service.

It also ranks as the seventh deadliest in U.S. history, and the deadliest since 1947. Additionlly, the Joplin tornado was also one of the most expensive tornadoes on record, having caused direct insured losses of $1.9 billion, according to Missouri officials. Others have estimated losses at closer to $3 billion.

Joplin is being rebuilt using state and federal funds, and the morale of the community received a boost when President Obama delivered the commencement address at Joplin High School on Monday evening. The High School itself was destroyed during the tornado, and students spent the past year taking classes in a temporary facility.

The Joplin tornado's death toll was especially shocking to weather forecasters, since during the past two decades billions of dollars have been spent upgrading the nation’s weather warning systems to provide timely tornado watches and warnings. A national network of Doppler radars scans the skies for severe thunderstorms and tornadoes, and scientists’ understanding of the factors that lead to tornadoes has improved dramatically during the past two decades. A tornado warning was in effect for Joplin at the time the storm struck, yet it was not enough to prevent so many deaths.

Given all the advances that have been made, the high death toll in Joplin has prompted many in the meteorological and emergency management communities to rethink how they issue tornado warnings.

One of the major lessons stemming from Joplin is that more attention needs to be paid to ensuring that tornado warnings encourage people to take protective action. A post-tornado survey report by a National Weather Service team found that most Joplin residents did not take shelter when they heard the tornado sirens. Instead, they waited until they received additional information confirming the threat. In part, this was because of the prevalence of false alarms.

In the wake of Joplin, and other deadly tornadoes that struck during the 2011 season, the National Weather Service is experimenting with issuing tornado warnings that contain enhanced wording in order to help encourage people to act.

While the tornado that devastated Joplin was the seventh deadliest in U.S. history, there have been far deadlier tornadoes. Here’s a look at the Top Six all-time twisters:

No. 6
The Woodward, Okla., Tornado, April 9, 1947

The scene in Woodward, Okla., after a deadly tornado struck in 1947. Credit: National Weather Service.

The deadliest tornado on record in the tornado-prone state of Oklahoma had a path length of 100 miles. According to the National Weather Service, the tornado had a maximum width of 1.8 miles, and a forward speed of about 50 mph. The tornado was ranked as an F-5 on the Fujita Scale, and it slammed into Woodward without warning at 8:42 pm on April 9, 1947. More than 1,000 homes and businesses were destroyed and 1,000 people injured. The Weather Service said the bodies of three children were never identified, and one child who survived the tornado was never reunited with her family.

The death toll from this event stands at 181, with at least 116 lives lost in Oklahoma. 

No. 5
The Gainesville, Ga., Tornado, April 6, 1936

Downtown Gainesville, Ga., following the devastating tornado that struck without warning in 1936. Credit: Digital Library of Georgia.

The tornado that hit Gainesville, which occurred a day after the Tupelo event (see No. 4 below), was actually a pair of tornadoes that converged on the center of the town at the height of the business day. According to the Digital Library of Georgia, 60 people died in just one building when the Cooper Pants Factory, a two-story garment factory, collapsed and burned after being struck. Many of the victims were young women and girls. In all, 203 were reported killed.

Tornado damage "immobilized the Gainesville Fire Department and forced rescuers to dynamite buildings on the Public Square as a means of controlling the rapid spread of fire," the website said.

Letters from Gainesville reportedly fell from the sky across state lines in South Carolina.

No. 4
Tupelo, Miss., April 5, 1936

This tornado was part of a group of twisters that struck Mississippi that day, and although it missed downtown Tupelo, it flattened residential areas around the town. In some cases the tornado wiped out entire families.

The official death toll stands at 216, although other estimates put it higher. This is due in part to differences between counting white vs. black victims at that time in the segregated South.

No. 3
The St. Louis/East St. Louis Tornado, May 27, 1896

The scene in St. Louis following the F-4 tornado there in 1896. Credit: NOAA Image Library.

The St. Louis tornado, which was later estimated to be of F-4 intensity on the Fujita Scale, caused 255 fatalities, and about $2.9 billion in damage when adjusted for inflation, according to one estimate.

The tornado struck the core of downtown St. Louis, damaging or destroying factories, hospitals, homes, railroad yards, churches and other facilities. About 35 people were killed at the Vandalia railroad freight yards in East St. Louis.

Considering how many more people live in St. Louis and East St. Louis today, and how much more developed it is than 100 years ago, if the same tornado struck today, the numbers of fatalities and damage would, in all likelihood, skyrocket.

No. 2
The Natchez, Miss., Tornado, May 6, 1840

According to the Tornado Project, which maintains an extensive database of U.S. tornadoes, the Natchez tornado touched down about 20 miles southwest of Natchez, Miss., on May 6, 1840. The funnel grew to a mile wide, and it moved along the Mississippi River, rather than crossing it quickly. This allowed it to sink numerous river-going vessels. In fact, the death toll was higher on the river than on land. A piece of a steamboat window was reportedly carried for 30 miles.

While the official death toll stands at 317, it’s possible that more were killed, particularly on plantations where deaths were not always accurately reported.

No. 1
The Tri-State Tornado, March 18, 1925

Damage in Murphysboro, Ill., following the Tri-State Tornado in 1925. The tornado killed 234 in this town as it traversed across three states. Credit: NOAA Image Library.

The deadliest tornado on record in the U.S. is the infamous Tri-State Tornado that carved out a 219-mile path across Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana on March 18, 1925. The tornado killed 695, and was estimated to be about three-quarters of a mile wide at times. The tornado traveled at an extraordinary speed — making it more difficult for people to seek shelter. At times its forward speed was clocked at more than 70 mph.

The Tri-State Tornado caused the largest death toll on record in a single U.S. city when it blasted through Murphysboro, Ill., killing 234, including many children who were in school at the time. At just one school — the De Soto school — 33 children were killed.

The tornado remained on the ground for a remarkable three and a half hours, during which time it destroyed 15,000 homes and injured more than 2,000, according to a National Weather Service website about this historic event. 

Comments

By Mr. R. L. Hails Sr. P. E.
on May 24th, 2012

It is obvious to me, a structural engineer, that our advances in storm electronic detection and communication have gone as far as possible.  But the lesson learned from seeing these historic structural failures is that our buildings remain essentially unchanged and are simply inadequate to provide security for life and property against storm loads.  Life protective structures, in homes, schools, hospitals, rescue facilities must be hardened to take the blow, and function.  Through the use of common materials: stone, dirt, reinforced concrete, metal, this is possible.  The problem is acceptance, and cost, the result of our value system.  Ask the survivors of Joplin if their decisions on purchasing structures, versus other purchase decisions, was wise.  Looking back, would they have paid more for a hardened interior room, to save their kids?  Or a “bomb shelter” or “root cellar” in the basement?

As our population grows in tornado alley, we will experience greater sorrows, if we do not make better decisions.  The decision tree is simple: Once given notice, do I act to save my people, and how much time do we have to seek a shelter that works?  And what else do I spend my money on?

Engineered solutions never solve problems; they cut it in half, at some cost.

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