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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660. NOLALawyer
6:45 PM GMT on May 24, 2011
Quoting IKE:
RIP 92L.


Ahhhh, there is the Ike we know and love.

Member Since: September 3, 2009 Posts: 0 Comments: 520
659. aspectre
6:35 PM GMT on May 24, 2011
92L has "wrong-way"ed from 31.7n57.0w to 27.8n54.4w : ie southward and eastward.
Landfall in the CapeVerdes in a couple of weeks ;-D
Member Since: August 21, 2007 Posts: 0 Comments: 4860
658. TomTaylor
1:59 PM GMT on May 24, 2011
New Blog, folks
Member Since: August 24, 2010 Posts: 19 Comments: 4358
657. IKE
1:59 PM GMT on May 24, 2011
WASHINGTON (CNNMoney) -- Thousands of contractors who got stimulus
money to do such things as build roads and provide social services owe
more than $750 million in back taxes, a federal investigation has found.

More than $24 billion in stimulus money went to some 3,700 contractors who
still owe the federal government taxes, according to the report released
Tuesday by the General Accountability Office, Congress' watchdog
agency. Tax cheats accounted for 5% of 80,000 contractors who got
stimulus dollars, the report said.
...................................... .................................................. ................
Already 83.3 outside my window at 9 am CDST.
Member Since: June 9, 2005 Posts: 23 Comments: 37860
656. NICycloneChaser
1:55 PM GMT on May 24, 2011
Quoting largeeyes:


I'd say you are now part of 1-2% of the population who would know what an invest was. Hurricane season gets a little silly in here, but it can be quite fascinating. Welcome!


Just a little...

Meanwhile, to calm down all those pre-season bustcasters, we haven't seen this in about, oh, a day or two.


All hail the chart.
Member Since: August 10, 2010 Posts: 2 Comments: 1971
655. largeeyes
1:49 PM GMT on May 24, 2011
Quoting Grandpato4:
I just want to stop for a moment and thank all of you for creating such a wonderful place to learn. I have learned so much already about the tropics, tornadoes and nuclear plants than I ever thought I could learn at my age. This blog has a wealth of information and I consider it a privilege that you let an old man like me be a
part of it. I am sure I will learn much from you all over this hurricane season. I am embarrassed to say I did not know what an "Invest" was until I was reading here on the blog.


I'd say you are now part of 1-2% of the population who would know what an invest was. Hurricane season gets a little silly in here, but it can be quite fascinating. Welcome!
Member Since: August 22, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 1462
654. leelee75k
1:48 PM GMT on May 24, 2011
hey everyone! back for another season of lurking, just wanted to say hi before I go find my place in the shadows.
Member Since: September 9, 2005 Posts: 0 Comments: 562
653. IKE
1:48 PM GMT on May 24, 2011

Quoting NICycloneChaser:


92L didn't even get a facebook page like 91L. Very sad.

It..at least deserved that. That is sad:( Bless it's heart.
Member Since: June 9, 2005 Posts: 23 Comments: 37860
652. Orcasystems
1:43 PM GMT on May 24, 2011
Complete Update





Member Since: October 1, 2007 Posts: 81 Comments: 26516
651. NICycloneChaser
1:42 PM GMT on May 24, 2011
Quoting IKE:
RIP 92L.


92L didn't even get a facebook page like 91L. Very sad.

Member Since: August 10, 2010 Posts: 2 Comments: 1971
649. lhwhelk
1:37 PM GMT on May 24, 2011
Quoting BanTech:


This season is a bust.
Wishcaster!
Member Since: August 26, 2008 Posts: 0 Comments: 69
648. stillwaiting
1:37 PM GMT on May 24, 2011
interesting feature trying to organize over cayman..
Member Since: October 5, 2007 Posts: 20 Comments: 4970
647. beell
1:36 PM GMT on May 24, 2011
Click for full Outlook text and graphics
13Z Day 1 Outlook
Member Since: September 11, 2007 Posts: 145 Comments: 16923
646. IKE
1:35 PM GMT on May 24, 2011

Quoting BanTech:


This season is a bust.
LOL.

0-0-0.

$$
Member Since: June 9, 2005 Posts: 23 Comments: 37860
645. Neapolitan
1:31 PM GMT on May 24, 2011
000
ABNT20 KNHC 241311
TWOAT

SPECIAL TROPICAL WEATHER OUTLOOK
NWS NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER MIAMI FL
910 AM EDT TUE MAY 24 2011

FOR THE NORTH ATLANTIC...CARIBBEAN SEA AND THE GULF OF MEXICO...

SHOWER AND THUNDERSTORM ACTIVITY HAS DIMINISHED IN ASSOCIATION WITH
A SURFACE LOW LOCATED ABOUT 650 MILES EAST-SOUTHEAST OF BERMUDA.
UPPER-LEVEL WINDS ARE NOT FAVORABLE...AND SUBTROPICAL CYCLONE
DEVELOPMENT IS NOT EXPECTED. THERE IS A LOW CHANCE...NEAR 0
PERCENT...OF THIS SYSTEM BECOMING A SUBTROPICAL CYCLONE DURING THE
NEXT 48 HOURS.
ADDITIONAL INFORMATION ON THIS SYSTEM CAN BE FOUND
IN HIGH SEAS FORECASTS ISSUED BY THE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE...
UNDER AWIPS HEADER NFDHSFAT1 AND WMO HEADER FZNT01 KWBC. THIS WILL
BE THE LAST SPECIAL TROPICAL WEATHER OUTLOOK ISSUED ON THIS SYSTEM.

ROUTINE ISSUANCE OF THE TROPICAL WEATHER OUTLOOK WILL RESUME ON JUNE
1.
Member Since: November 8, 2009 Posts: 4 Comments: 13803
644. jeffs713
1:29 PM GMT on May 24, 2011
Quoting Neapolitan:

Reading just today that TEPCO is admitting what we all sorta already knew: there were near-simultaneous meltdowns in reactors 1, 2, and 3. They can only confirm pressure vessel damage to unit #1 at this point, though all three may be in similar shape. Unit #4 didn't meltdown, of course, though the spent fuel rods stored there caught fire and spewed massive amounts of radiation into the air. And the water problem is huge; by the winter, up to 200,000 tonnes (53 million gallons, or roughly 90 Olympic-sized swimming pools) of highly radioactive water will be in need of decontamination or permanent storage.

Link

Link

Link
Why not just cycle the water back through? Isn't that what the power plant does in normal operations anyway?
Member Since: August 3, 2008 Posts: 16 Comments: 5891
643. Chicklit
1:28 PM GMT on May 24, 2011
As if they don't have enough problems...

LinkJapanMeteorologicalAgencyTropicalCyclonePage
Member Since: July 11, 2006 Posts: 14 Comments: 11424
642. oddspeed
1:25 PM GMT on May 24, 2011
Reading just today that TEPCO is admitting what we all sorta already knew: there were near-simultaneous meltdowns in reactors 1, 2, and 3. They can only confirm pressure vessel damage to unit #1 at this point, though all three may be in similar shape. Unit #4 didn't meltdown, of course, though the spent fuel rods stored there caught fire and spewed massive amounts of radiation into the air. And the water problem is huge; by the winter, up to 200,000 tonnes (53 million gallons, or roughly 90 Olympic-sized swimming pools) of highly radioactive water will be in need of decontamination or permanent storage.

Link

Link

Link

Any chance these record tornado outbreaks are the result of the elevated radiation levels in the atmosphere?
Member Since: September 4, 2007 Posts: 0 Comments: 237
640. barbamz
1:23 PM GMT on May 24, 2011
Quoting LS1redline:


Drought or not I wish was I back there. I spent some time working south of Stuttgart for my company. Loved hiking the black forest every day after work!


You're right, it's especially nice there. I once lived near black forest when I was a student in Freiburg. I miss it, too.
Member Since: October 25, 2008 Posts: 63 Comments: 6716
639. IKE
1:22 PM GMT on May 24, 2011
Quoting NICycloneChaser:
92L is dead. Just got 0% on the special TWO.
RIP 92L.
Member Since: June 9, 2005 Posts: 23 Comments: 37860
638. NICycloneChaser
1:20 PM GMT on May 24, 2011
92L is dead. Just got 0% on the special TWO.
Member Since: August 10, 2010 Posts: 2 Comments: 1971
637. Neapolitan
1:17 PM GMT on May 24, 2011
Quoting WatchingThisOne:
On the Japan front, apparently they are running out of space to store water at Fukushima Daiichi. They expect to fill existing capacity within days.

It will be at least two weeks after that before they get the large water decontamination system in place, perhaps significantly longer.

That large barge is onsite now, and has a capacity of 10,000 tonnes, the same as the main storage facility at Fukushima. However, the plan had been to run mostly decontaminated water (mildly radioactive was how it was put) into the barge.

So either that barge is going to get very radioactive or we are going to see large releases of highly radioactive water into the sea. I don't know if they can even do hookups to the barge with highly radioactive water.

Water is the big crisis at the moment. No where to put it and they can't stop pumping it.

(from various sources)

WTO

Reading just today that TEPCO is admitting what we all sorta already knew: there were near-simultaneous meltdowns in reactors 1, 2, and 3. They can only confirm pressure vessel damage to unit #1 at this point, though all three may be in similar shape. Unit #4 didn't meltdown, of course, though the spent fuel rods stored there caught fire and spewed massive amounts of radiation into the air. And the water problem is huge; by the winter, up to 200,000 tonnes (53 million gallons, or roughly 90 Olympic-sized swimming pools) of highly radioactive water will be in need of decontamination or permanent storage.

Link

Link

Link
Member Since: November 8, 2009 Posts: 4 Comments: 13803
636. scott39
1:16 PM GMT on May 24, 2011
Quoting IKE:

HaHa--clever Ike
Member Since: June 13, 2009 Posts: 0 Comments: 6912
635. scott39
1:15 PM GMT on May 24, 2011
Quoting cat5hurricane:

True, it has been. But also one must keep in mind the population explosions for some of these areas. Take Joplin MO, for instance. Between 1970 and 2000, their population added 45,000 residents in the greater metropolitan region (surrounding suburbs, municipalities). That also has to be considered.

I see your point. The land has always been there...the people havent.
Member Since: June 13, 2009 Posts: 0 Comments: 6912
633. IKE
1:14 PM GMT on May 24, 2011
Quoting clwstmchasr:


I was out working in the yard yesterday in a heat index of about 105. I looked up and saw something that really ruined my day. It was a lone white puffy cloud that appeared to be giving me the "bird"...

Member Since: June 9, 2005 Posts: 23 Comments: 37860
632. LS1redline
1:13 PM GMT on May 24, 2011
Quoting barbamz:


Unfortunately yes (more or less), except in the extreme south (region of the Alpes Mountains). Locally there had been some thunderstorms the last days, but they couldn't catch up the deficit.


Drought or not I wish was I back there. I spent some time working south of Stuttgart for my company. Loved hiking the black forest every day after work!
Member Since: March 6, 2007 Posts: 0 Comments: 293
629. overwash12
1:10 PM GMT on May 24, 2011
The local paper has on the headline 481 deaths in the U.S. this year already! That is for tornadoes only,and it's only May 24th.
Member Since: June 24, 2007 Posts: 0 Comments: 1497
628. WatchingThisOne
1:09 PM GMT on May 24, 2011
Quoting cat5hurricane:

Time to entomb.


My understanding is that there is still too much decay heat around to do that. TEPCO says they will have things under control by January. They may, but until then they can't seal it up for fear of a devastasting explosion from decay heat building up. If they could, they would be pouring boron-impregnated concrete now.

WTO
Member Since: July 15, 2005 Posts: 3 Comments: 1270
627. CyclonicVoyage
1:07 PM GMT on May 24, 2011
Quoting pottery:

I hope you get it in manageable amounts...


I am hearing a lot more talk of, as is my opinion, that we're to the point that we need a low end Hurricane to come through here. Both to alleviate this drought and to kick this sluggish economy in the pants.

But yes, anything more would be counter productive.
Member Since: January 30, 2010 Posts: 0 Comments: 3259
626. scott39
1:06 PM GMT on May 24, 2011
Quoting cat5hurricane:

Don't have specifics. Per capita, probably not. For total amount of property damage as a whole (bearing in mind population and property household income/value assessments & figures from the 2010 Census), I'd be willing to bet it's up toward the top.
Thanks, Its the first time in my 41 years... that Ive heard and seen so much destruction from tornados.
Member Since: June 13, 2009 Posts: 0 Comments: 6912
624. barbamz
1:02 PM GMT on May 24, 2011
Quoting overwash12:
The whole country is in a drought?


Unfortunately yes (more or less), except in the extreme south (region of the Alpes Mountains). Locally there had been some thunderstorms the last days, but they couldn't catch up the deficit.
Member Since: October 25, 2008 Posts: 63 Comments: 6716
623. CyclonicVoyage
1:01 PM GMT on May 24, 2011
Quoting barbamz:
We join all of you who complain about the lack of rain. Drought-Index for Germany this spring (in mm):


And of course: our sympathy and best whishes for all who live in the tornado region!




That is 6 to 8" below normal. Eastern Palm Beach County is sitting at -12.43", just FYI :-)
Member Since: January 30, 2010 Posts: 0 Comments: 3259
621. WatchingThisOne
12:59 PM GMT on May 24, 2011
On the Japan front, apparently they are running out of space to store water at Fukushima Daiichi. They expect to fill existing capacity within days.

It will be at least two weeks after that before they get the large water decontamination system in place, perhaps significantly longer.

That large barge is onsite now, and has a capacity of 10,000 tonnes, the same as the main storage facility at Fukushima. However, the plan had been to run mostly decontaminated water (mildly radioactive was how it was put) into the barge.

So either that barge is going to get very radioactive or we are going to see large releases of highly radioactive water into the sea. I don't know if they can even do hookups to the barge with highly radioactive water.

Water is the big crisis at the moment. No where to put it and they can't stop pumping it.

(from various sources)

WTO
Member Since: July 15, 2005 Posts: 3 Comments: 1270
620. MTWX
12:58 PM GMT on May 24, 2011
SPC day 1 high risk!! KS and OK need to be ready to go today!
Member Since: July 20, 2009 Posts: 23 Comments: 1393
619. overwash12
12:58 PM GMT on May 24, 2011
Quoting barbamz:
We join all of you who complain about the lack of rain. Drought-Index for Germany this spring (in mm):


And of course: our sympathy and best whishes for all who live in the tornado region!
The whole country is in a drought?
Member Since: June 24, 2007 Posts: 0 Comments: 1497
618. IKE
12:56 PM GMT on May 24, 2011
12Z 5 day QPF......


Member Since: June 9, 2005 Posts: 23 Comments: 37860
617. scott39
12:54 PM GMT on May 24, 2011
Does anyone know... if this tornado season is the worst ever recorded,with regards to hitting heavy populated areas?
Member Since: June 13, 2009 Posts: 0 Comments: 6912
616. pottery
12:52 PM GMT on May 24, 2011
Quoting Neapolitan:
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? :-\

Amen.
Member Since: October 24, 2005 Posts: 0 Comments: 24909
615. IKE
12:51 PM GMT on May 24, 2011

Quoting clwstmchasr:


Where's Jeff? He was insistent that the rainy season was coming early to Florida starting this week.
He's MIA along w/the rain?
Member Since: June 9, 2005 Posts: 23 Comments: 37860
614. barbamz
12:51 PM GMT on May 24, 2011
We join all of you who complain about the lack of rain. Drought-Index for Germany this spring (in mm):


And of course: our sympathy and best whishes for all who live in the tornado region!
Member Since: October 25, 2008 Posts: 63 Comments: 6716
613. beell
12:49 PM GMT on May 24, 2011
Quoting cat5hurricane:

You're always on top of the severe weather and know your stuff. And yes, it appears the SPC now is updated.


I must be hitting a different NOAA server. Don't have it here yet.

Appreciate the compliment. Weather has a way of making us all humble at times! I try to keep that in mind.
Member Since: September 11, 2007 Posts: 145 Comments: 16923
612. TampaTom
12:49 PM GMT on May 24, 2011
Interesting article about the efficacy of the existing tornado warning system:

http://www.cnn.com/2011/US/05/23/missouri.tornado .warning/index.html?hpt=C1
Member Since: June 20, 2005 Posts: 22 Comments: 1054
611. KEEPEROFTHEGATE (Mod)
12:48 PM GMT on May 24, 2011
Member Since: July 15, 2006 Posts: 178 Comments: 56141
610. KEEPEROFTHEGATE (Mod)
12:47 PM GMT on May 24, 2011
Member Since: July 15, 2006 Posts: 178 Comments: 56141

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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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