Deadliest U.S. tornado since 1953 rips through Joplin, Missouri, killing 89

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 2:11 PM GMT on May 23, 2011

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The incredibly violent tornado season of 2011 struck another sickening blow last night, when a violent tornado carved a ½ – ¾ mile-wide path of devastation through Joplin, Missouri. At least 89 people died, hundreds were injured, and huge sections of the town virtually obliterated. Damage from the tornado is so severe that pavement was ripped from the ground, which is characteristic of a top-end EF-5 tornado with winds in excess of 200 mph. This was almost certainly a least an EF-4 tornado with winds over 166 mph, and the level of damage is so extreme that this is likely to surpass last month's Tuscaloosa-Birmingham tornado as the costliest tornado of all-time.


Figure 1. Cars stacked on top of each other in front of the heavily damaged St. Johns Regional Medical Center after the May 22, 2011 tornado in Joplin, Missouri. Note the pavement ripped up from the road and piled in front of the cars. Tornadoes powerful enough to rip up pavement are frequently classified as EF-5 with winds in excess of 200 mph. Image credit: Chris McCrillis, posted to Twitter.

The huge supercell thunderstorm that spawned the Joplin tornado formed over extreme southeast Kansas yesterday afternoon, along the boundary between warm, moist air flowing northwards from the Gulf of Mexico, and cold, dry air moving south from Canada. NOAA's Storm Prediction Center (SPC) had put the region in its “moderate risk” region for severe weather. As the supercell moved into Southwest Missouri, it spawned the tornado that roared through Joplin at 5:45pm CDT. This storm generated other tornadoes, straight-line wind damage, and flash flooding from torrential rains that exceeded six inches as it moved east southeast across Southwest Missouri. SPC recorded 48 preliminary reports of tornadoes yesterday, bringing the 2-day total for the current outbreak to 70. A tornado also killed one person and injured 22 in Minneapolis Sunday. Separate tornadoes killed one person each in Andice, Texas and Reading, Kansas on Saturday—the first tornado deaths in the U.S. since the April 25 – 28 Super Outbreak.


Figure 2. Radar reflectivity image of the supercell thunderstorm that spawned the Joplin, Missouri tornado, ½ hour after it devastated the city (circle with the “+” symbol.)


Figure 3. Radar Doppler velocity image of the supercell thunderstorm that spawned the Joplin, Missouri tornado, ½ hour after it devastated the city (circle with the “+” symbol.)


Figure 4. Satellite image taken at 5:45pm CDT May 22, 2011, when the Joplin, Missouri tornado was occurring. Image credit: NASA/GSFC.

Deadliest tornado since 1953
Yesterday's Joplin, Missouri tornado is the deadliest single tornado in the U.S. since June 10, 1953, when 94 people died in the Worcester, Massachusetts tornado. The previous deadliest tornado in the past 50 years occurred just last month, when 65 people died in the Tuscaloosa-Birmingham EF-4 tornado in Alabama. This year's tornado death toll now stands at 455, making it the deadliest year for tornadoes in the U.S. since 1953, when 519 people died. The deadliest year was 1925, with 794 deaths. That was the year of the deadliest U.S. tornado of all-time, the great Tri-State tornado, which killed 695 people in Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana.

More severe weather today
NOAA's Storm Prediction Center has placed a large section of the Midwest U.S., including portions of Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, in its “moderate risk” region for severe weather today. The threat of tornadoes will not be as great today as yesterday, with today's main threat being large hail and damaging straight-line thunderstorm winds. However, I do expect we will see a dozen or so tornadoes today, and residents of the at-risk area need to keep in mind the deadly history of this storm system. The severe weather threat will continue into Tuesday, when additional tornadoes are likely over Oklahoma, Kansas, and Southwest Missouri. A severe thunderstorm roared through Joplin between 8:30am and 9am CDT this morning, bringing heavy rain, small hail, and wind gusts to 36 mph. Undoubtedly, this storm frayed some nerves, and the city will remain at risk of seeing more severe thunderstorms through Tuesday night.


Figure 5. Severe weather threat for Monday, May 23, 2011.

Links
The most remarkable audio I've ever heard of people surviving a direct hit by a violent tornado was posted to Youtube by someone who took shelter in the walk-in storage refrigerator at a gas station during the Joplin tornado. There isn't much video. We won't see a lot of spectacular videos of the Joplin tornado, since it was wrapped in rain and difficult to see.

Listen to my 12-minute interview on the historic April 2011 tornadoes for EarthSky.org, which aired on NPR earlier this month. I discuss how climate change might impact severe weather and tornadoes.

Our weather historian, Christopher C. Burt, has an excellent post on The World's Deadliest Tornadoes.

My 2008 post, Are tornadoes getting stronger and more frequent? The answer is--we don't know.


Figure 6. The Portlight relief trailer being loaded in Summerville, SC, in preparation for a journey to the April tornado disaster zone.

Helping out tornado victims
For those who want to lend a helping hand to those impacted by the widespread destruction this spring's severe weather has brought, stop by the Red Cross website, or portlight.org blog. Portlight has been very active bringing aid to the victims of this year's tornadoes.

Jeff Masters

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Wall Cloud (thomasanthony)
Rotating wall cloud coming through Perry Kansas. That speck towards the top is a helicopter.
Wall Cloud
Gran Tara by ketchum ok. (wick918)
The one that hit Joplin Mo.
Gran Tara  by ketchum ok.
Reading, KS (wheelingrabbit)
Reading, KS Grain Silo
Reading, KS

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Member Since: July 15, 2006 Posts: 171 Comments: 53825
anyway i got to put in a shift long weekend over be back around lunch we should see the first of the storms at daytime heat maximum at 4 pm
Member Since: July 15, 2006 Posts: 171 Comments: 53825
My hopes for the day:

I hope the SPC is wrong.

I hope that shear relaxes so mesocyclones haven't a chance to spin up.

I hope the convective cap stays strong and in place.

I hope that any potential supercells never even make it to adolescence, instead growing into nothing more than scattered handfuls of drowsy cumulus clouds.

I hope that no tornadoes--especially violent ones--form.

I hope that any tornadoes that do form--especially violent ones--spin their way harmlessly across open land, countryside that's free of buildings, people, or animals.

I hope today's stormchasers will have wasted their gas and time merely driving around the Great Plains under cloudless skies.

I hope that after today, the 2011 tornado season is finished.

I hope the SPC is wrong.

I hope the SPC is wrong.

I hope the SPC is wrong.

- - - - - - - - - -

Hey, a guy can have hope, right? :-\
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
605. beell
Just a little bit of morning stratus over OK. Should burn off pretty quick.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Quoting cat5hurricane:

I'd take her out any day of the week.
Go for it...for some reason my wife would get mad if I tried.
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Quoting clwstmchasr:


Where's Jeff? He was insistent that the rainy season was coming early to Florida starting this week.
rain will come first weekend of june for fla not before
Member Since: July 15, 2006 Posts: 171 Comments: 53825
Quoting AllyBama:
We are at a 13" rain deficit this year-to-date in Mobile and I am praying that we don't cover it all at once! A small tropical system would be o.k. provided it didn't stall..
The rain will catch up here eventually. During the meantime, my grass isnt growing...YES!!
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599. beell
Quoting iahishome:
Taz!

Or anyone else, can you tell me where to get that map from the SPC? I went to Wunderground severe page and it only shows moderate risk tomorrow. I have a friend in the area of high risk and I want to tell her to lay low tomorrow!

I'd like to send her the link that shows 'high' risk instead of moderate.


The latest SPC Day one usually is out around 7AM-8AM CDT. Momentarily. The link Kori provided is just right.
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We are at a 13" rain deficit this year-to-date in Mobile and I am praying that we don't cover it all at once! A small tropical system would be o.k. provided it didn't stall..
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596. Jax82
Quoting IKE:
What happened to the "rainy season starting in peninsula Florida"?

The waiting is the hardest part.


The rainy season got banned for an unknown period of time. lol
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Quoting IKE:
Stephanie Abrams on TWC...."It is Wednesday, May 24th"......

Uh...no...it's only Tuesday. She's a little out there...somewhere.
I dont care what day of the week she thinks it is....she is HOT!!
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GfS starts forming another Paloma by next week wednessday. Takes it right over the Caymans then Cuba and out into the Atlantic.
Link
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Quoting CyclonicVoyage:





Dry is an understatement. Eastern Palm Beach County currently holds the record in the south @ 45% of normal -12.43 inches since November 2010. We're going to need an active tropical season to pull us out.

I hope you get it in manageable amounts...
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592. IKE
What happened to the "rainy season starting in peninsula Florida"?

The waiting is the hardest part.
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Well 90E is dead
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Quoting IKE:
It is soooo dry. Hard for me to complain with what's happened elsewhere though.

Absolutely..A lot of folks would take the dry from you right quick. Today will be another really bad day for some. Clear skies will rapidly destabilize the atmosphere causing explosive development of tornadic storms....
Member Since: September 27, 2007 Posts: 1 Comments: 21192
Quoting IKE:
It is soooo dry. Hard for me to complain with what's happened elsewhere though.




Dry is an understatement. Eastern Palm Beach County currently holds the record in the south @ 45% of normal -12.43 inches since November 2010. We're going to need an active tropical season to pull us out.
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Quoting IKE:
Per CNN...."17 rescued from tornado wreckage, 117 dead"



That's pretty significant for a single tornado.
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Ike, I concur with that! Praying that today will NOT pan out as forecast..

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586. IKE
Per CNN...."17 rescued from tornado wreckage, 117 dead"
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Good morning. At least there is some rain falling in parts of the Western Caribbean,where it has been very dry in the past few months.

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Quoting pottery:

How come you get a 20 minute warning, and you are in a gas station?
Surely they could have SEEN this thing coming??? Even if they WERE deaf.


Honestly, If I had to choose somewhere to take shelter, I definetly wouldnt have picked a gas station..just the combination of gas and fire would have been a reason to keep going..I hope they find the clerk because they said he was the real hero and he saved lives..
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12 Hr



24 Hr



36 Hr



And the list goes on, isnt looking good for those folks, Good Luck and stay safe!!
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582. IKE
Quoting AllyBama:
Ike, did you take my rain?..lol

I've had .76 inches of precip this month.

We have had about .10 of an inch - lol

It is soooo dry. Hard for me to complain with what's happened elsewhere though.

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Ike, did you take my rain?..lol

I've had .76 inches of precip this month.

We have had about .10 of an inch - lol

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Quoting ncstorm:
Did anyone see Anderson Cooper interviewed the people who were in the gas station last night?

How come you get a 20 minute warning, and you are in a gas station?
Surely they could have SEEN this thing coming??? Even if they WERE deaf.
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Quoting BanTech:
Good morning all....

*sips coffee*

Who brought the doughnuts?

Me.
But I ate them....

The ITCZ has gone kind of quiet in the Atl. over the past 2 days.
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Did anyone see Anderson Cooper interviewed the people who were in the gas station last night?
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Quoting muddertracker:
I wonder if Mike Bettis will be up for the chase today. If I were him..I'd opt OUT.


He is in Wichita, KS today waiting to start the chase so if you can watch, then pick up on his livestreaming video and follow along..
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TROPICAL WEATHER OUTLOOK
NWS NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER MIAMI FL
500 AM PDT TUE MAY 24 2011

FOR THE EASTERN NORTH PACIFIC...EAST OF 140 DEGREES WEST LONGITUDE..

1. SHOWER AND THUNDERSTORM ACTIVITY HAS DIMINISHED IN ASSOCIATION WITH
A WEAK AREA OF LOW PRESSURE LOCATED ABOUT 350 MILES SOUTH-SOUTHWEST
OF THE GULF OF TEHUANTEPEC. TROPICAL CYCLONE DEVELOPMENT IS NOT
EXPECTED AND THERE IS A LOW CHANCE...NEAR 0 PERCENT...OF THIS
SYSTEM BECOMING A TROPICAL CYCLONE DURING THE NEXT 48 HOURS.

TROPICAL CYCLONE FORMATION IS NOT EXPECTED DURING THE NEXT 48 HOURS.
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I wonder if Mike Bettis will be up for the chase today. If I were him..I'd opt OUT.
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573. IKE

Quoting pottery:

Rapture.
Oh.....I like that song.....

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yLhaTzMyGhM
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models still picking up a dist. at end of the run for jun 2 in carb
Member Since: July 15, 2006 Posts: 171 Comments: 53825
Wow! I high risk for Oklahoma City, Norman, Tulsa, Oklahoma and Wichita, Kansas. This possible tornado outbreak could be like May 10, 2010, or May 9, 1999 all over again.
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Quoting IKE:
Ali Velshi(CNN morning host), interviewing a man that survived the tornado in Joplin while in his pickup truck.....

"She laid down...I laid down on top of her" :)

LOL....that's what he said.

Rapture.
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569. IKE

Quoting KEEPEROFTHEGATE:
good morning ike not that there is anything good for today lets hope the alerts save lives today

o by the way 7 more days till ya start posting yer 0.0.0 numbers keep the tradition alive
LOL...I will.
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good morning ike not that there is anything good for today lets hope the alerts save lives today

o by the way 7 more days till ya start posting yer 0.0.0 numbers keep the tradition alive
Member Since: July 15, 2006 Posts: 171 Comments: 53825
567. IKE

Quoting aquak9:
Ike- maybe you oughtta post the date here every morning...heck I don't even know what day it is, most've the time.
It is Tuesday, May 24th....the 144th day of 2011. There are 221 days left in the year.

I've had .76 inches of precip this month.
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566. IKE
Ali Velshi(CNN morning host), interviewing a man that survived the tornado in Joplin while in his pickup truck.....

"She laid down...I laid down on top of her" :)

LOL....that's what he said.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Member Since: July 15, 2006 Posts: 171 Comments: 53825

I'm going back to sleep..or pop whatever Stephanie Abrahms is taking..like anyone needs more tornados. Let's just pray they stay away from people and towns. I wonder how depleted FEMA is already...it's not even hurricane season.
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Member Since: July 15, 2006 Posts: 171 Comments: 53825
Member Since: July 15, 2006 Posts: 171 Comments: 53825
Ike- maybe you oughtta post the date here every morning...heck I don't even know what day it is, most've the time.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:

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Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.

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