Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Joplin: One Year Later. Part I: Lessons Learned (or In Progress)...

It's hard to believe that it was one year ago today that the city of Joplin, MO was ravaged by a large, violent tornado about 5 hours from the time of this writing.

By the time the horrific event was all said and done, 161 people were killed, over 8,000 homes and buildings were destroyed and over 15,000 vehicles were damaged or destroyed.  The damage payout so far has been just over $2.1 billion, and those are only the insured losses - not everyone had insurance.

The tornado cut a path generally West-East across the southern part of town.  The satellite image below (via the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) shows catastrophic levels of damage in the red shaded areas:

The event was well forecast by the Storm Prediction Center (SPC) in Norman, OK, but it didn't seem to receive the fanfare in the media that is sometimes seen leading up to certain events, likely because the buzzwords of "widespread, outbreak", etc. weren't used to describe the situation (rather, it was deemed to be a local/regional threat).

The tornado probability forecast issued just after Midnight that Sunday morning placed the Joplin area within the region favorable for "significant" tornadoes.  A Public Severe Weather Outlook was issued at late morning that specifically described "Southwest to Northeast Missouri" as being within the danger zone:

A Tornado Watch, including the City of Joplin, was issued at 1:30 PM, just over 4 hours before the tornado struck.  The wording of the technical portion of the watch indicated that strong tornadoes were possible (click to enlarge):

While the forecast did give citizens a "heads-up" that trouble was brewing for later in the day, the warning situation concerning the Joplin event was a different story entirely.  In my opinion it was an abysmal failure which, at least in part, lead to the high death toll that was witnessed in Joplin.  Here are just a few of the major problems with the warning process on that day:

-Tornado warnings and follow-up statements incorrectly indicated the location and direction of movement of the tornado and/or parent thunderstorm.  This lead citizens to believe it would be the northern part of town that would be affected, which was the complete opposite of reality.

-Tornado warnings and/or follow-up statements did not describe the situation as dire or the tornado as large and/or destructive until the tornado had completely passed through the city (despite the fact of strong radar indications and spotter reports of a destructive tornado in progress well before that time)

-Prior to May 22, 2011, the NWS had issued 24 consecutive tornado warnings for the City of Joplin and Jasper County, MO.  Not one tornado was ever reported in those 24 warnings.  The public had little to no confidence in the warning product, and given that performance record, who can blame them?

-The City of Joplin had a policy of sounding the outdoor warning sirens very liberally.  Not only were all sirens sounded throughout the city regardless of where a particular threat was located, but they often sounded them for events other than tornadoes, such as "strong winds", etc.  This basically lead to the citizens being trained to ignore the sirens altogether.

Without a doubt, more than 161 would have perished had a warning not been issued at all.  With that said, the death toll did not have to be that high, and would not have been had the warnings been properly issued and the message properly conveyed.

A study by University of Oklahoma researcher Kim Klockow indicates that even those who received and "believed" in the warnings did not necessarily take immediate action (or in some cases, any action at all):

I agree that a critical task is at hand for those in the severe weather warning business, from meteorologists and the media, right down to local officials:  we must convey warnings and follow-up information in such a manner that end users:  (1). clearly receive the message, (2).  clearly see that there is an imminent threat to their lives and/or property and (3).  quickly act on that threat and seek shelter.

Unfortunately, the bottom line on the warning problem is that until we have the above task mastered, we're likely to see repeats of the Joplin death toll in the future.

On a much more positive note, much progress has been made in Joplin over the past year.  I'll have another post on that later this afternoon...

If you'd like to read my original post on the Joplin event from last year, please go to this link.  Until March of this year, it had been the #1 most read blog post in the history of The Original Weather Blog.  

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed reading your post. It's very well written and the mainstream media does seem to drop the ball more often than not in their conveyance of how important it is in acting on warnings - it is of imperative nature. Thanks for your passion for weather and people's education and safety.