May 22, 2011 was a sunny day in Joplin, Missouri, with people going to church and graduation. It was a Sunday, a day of rest. Initially, there was no heightened threat for severe weather across the region in the morning hours of May 22. A slight risk area was highlighted across the area, but there was nothing that warranted a huge threat for large, violent tornadoes. By that evening, the city of Joplin was bracing for a violent tornado that struck at 5:41 p.m. CDT. Not only was the city shocked, but meteorologists were shocked of the fast developments of this storm. Today – May 22, 2012 – is the one-year anniversary of the tragedy that took place in Joplin, Missouri. The EF-5 tornado killed 161 people, making it the deadliest single tornado to hit the United States since modern tornado record keeping began in 1950. With over three billion dollars in damage, the EF-5 tornado is the costliest tornado in world history. The city is still picking up the pieces one year later, but the city still remains and is rebuilding.
This post includes videos of these experiences that many people in Joplin, Missouri experienced. Watch a few at least. They are powerful.
The EF-5 Joplin, Missouri tornado will be the tornado meteorologists will talk about for years to come. Prior to Joplin, we talked about the EF-5 tornado that destroyed the city of Greensburg, Kansas on May 4, 2007. The important message behind Joplin, Missouri for all of us is: what went wrong? Why did so many die, and how can we prevent a similar loss of life in future tornadoes? The warning process was very poor in this situation, and unless you were at home, watching radar, the chances of knowing a tornado was approaching Joplin was very slim. Many people were out and about on the roads when the tornado struck, which contributed to more injuries and deaths. The tornado was large – over a mile wide – and was rain wrapped. Once the tornado got close to the area, it was too late for many to take shelter.
How it happened:
The first tornado warning was issued for northern Jasper county that did not include the city of Joplin around 5:10 PM. The sirens were initiated throughout the county. However, by 5:17 PM, another tornado warning was issued south of the current one that extended into Joplin. At this time, however, no sirens were turned on. The tornado was clearly on the southern branch of the storm, and the main focus was on the northern part of the storm in Jasper county. By 5:41 PM, the tornado pushes through downtown Joplin. In the image above, you can see the debris ball on radar, which practically shows the debris from the storm that is lodged into the air. As debris is flying in the air, radar picks it up and shows high reflectivity, thus showing us a debris ball on radar.
Watch the full evolution of the Joplin, Missouri tornado as it starts as a funnel cloud and quickly ramps up into a large, destructive wedge tornado. Amazing video:
Another group of storm chasers, Jeff and Kathryn Piotrowski was targeting this storm as it was pushing through Joplin. Amazing footage as the storm hits and just devastating reactions (4:45) from Jeff Piotrowski as he walks into the aftermath of destruction:
Perhaps out of all of the videos, this one hits close to home. Many people were driving on the roads and interstate when this supercell thunderstorm pushed through Joplin. In this video, a truck driver was blindly driving directly into the tornado without knowing it. WARNING: I will admit, this is probably one of the scariest youtube videos I have ever seen from a tornado. Viewer discretion is advised.
The truck driver writes:
“Yeah im ok,i was driving a 18 wheeler,and i don’t have any other footage,i didn’t even know i was going into a tornado,i was just recording it testing out my camera on my phone. My camera/ my phone was mounted on the windshield on a stand and when i flipped my windshield broke and got torn out so that i lost my phone! but when the moved my truck my phone was under the truck which i was able to salvage the memory card to get the video ? i was flipped [around 3:26 in the video] and then pushed until my trailer hit the ditch and could go no more.”
As the tornado ravaged through Joplin, Missouri, the hospital and other businesses were able to capture its intensity. Check out these security cameras that caught the debris flying into the air. The first video was just released this past week from St. Johns emergency waiting room. The second video shows the power of the tornado outside a yard.
What we have learned:
Although this was a tragedy, it was also a learning experience. The people of Joplin and neighborhoods surrounding the city banded together to help those who were homeless, hurt, or needed help searching for loved ones and valuables. According to the website “Joplin Tornado Anniversary”, 130,009 volunteers have provided 810,476.5 hours to the rebuilding of Joplin. The one-year anniversary makes today the “Day of Unity”. Throughout the day, the city of Joplin will band together as they have the entire past year to remember and reflect on the ones they have lost. Joplin continues to look into the future, and rebuilding is their top priority. They want to make Joplin better than it was prior to the tornado. You know what? I know they can do that. For the full lineup of events of the Day of Unity, please click here.
On May 21, 2012, President Obama visited the graduating senior class of Joplin High School and made a commencement speech. He focused on the hardships they have encountered the past year, and how those experiences will only make the students stronger as they become adults in the real world.
The job of a commencement speaker – aside from keeping it short and sweet – is to inspire. But as I look out at this class, and across this city, what’s clear is that you’re the source of inspiration today. To me. To this state. To this country. And to people all over the world.
Last year, the road that led you here took a turn that no one could’ve imagined. Just hours after the class of 2011 walked across this stage, the most powerful tornado in six decades tore a path of devastation through Joplin that was nearly a mile wide and 13 miles long. In only 32 minutes, it took thousands of homes, hundreds of businesses, and 161 of your neighbors, your friends, and your family members. It took Will Norton, who had just left this auditorium with a diploma in his hand. It took Lantz Hare, who should’ve received his diploma next year.
By now, most of you have probably relived those 32 minutes again and again. Where you were. What you saw. When you knew for sure that it was over. The first contact you had with someone you love. The first day you woke up in a world that would never be the same. And yet, the story of Joplin is the story of what happened the next day. And the day after that. And all the days and weeks that followed. As your city manager, Mark Rohr, has said, the people here chose to define the tragedy “not by what happened to us, but by how we responded.”
That story is part of you now. You’ve grown up quickly over the last year. You’ve learned at a younger age than most that we can’t always predict what life has in store for us. No matter how we might try to avoid it, life can bring heartache. Life involves struggle. Life will bring loss.
But here in Joplin, you’ve also learned that we have the power to grow from these experiences. We can define our own lives not by what happens to us, but by how we respond. We can choose to carry on, and make a difference in the world. And in doing so, we can make true what’s written in Scripture – that “tribulation produces perseverance, and perseverance, character, and character, hope.”
Of all that’s come from this tragedy, let this be the central lesson that guides you and sustains you through whatever challenges lie ahead.
On May 22, 2011, 161 lives were lost in Joplin as the deadly EF-5 tornado, with wind speeds over 200 mph, pushed through the center of the city. Since this event, meteorologists have been trying to figure out ways to improve the tornado warning system to help save lives. We can learn from our mistakes, and hope that events such as this do not occur with any frequency. Unfortunately, an event like Joplin, Missouri will happen again. It is only a question of when and where will it occur. Since the deadly tornado outbreaks of 2011, we are trying to figure out new ways to warn people from deadly weather. Experimental warnings with stronger wording has been used to help warn residents in Kansas and Missouri this spring. Starting in June 2012, a new emergency system will send out texts to all cellphones using GPS technology.
Bottom line: Joplin, Missouri is stronger than it has ever been. The entire community has worked together to rebuild the city. Although it will take many more years to fully complete the transformation of the city, I fully expect it to grow bigger and better. The people of Joplin will never forget the fear and destruction as this tornado pushed into their area. They will never forget those who they lost from this tragic event. But the Joplin High School will be rebuilt. The city will be rebuilt. Joplin is full of survivors, hard workers and passionate people. They’ll make their city stronger than before. Prayers go out to everyone that were affected by this disaster a year ago. On Joplin’s Day of Unity – May 22, 2012 – Joplin not only reflects on its past, but looks to a stronger future.
When he's not keeping EarthSky's community up-to-date on global weather happenings, meteorologist Matt Daniel is the weekend Meteorologist for 13WMAZ (CBS) in Macon, Georgia. He is also a freelance weather producer for CNN. He has contributed to articles to MSN Weather and worked with the National Weather Service. Matt graduated from The University of Georgia where he obtained a degree in Geography and a certificate in Atmospheric Sciences and Music Business. He has a passion for helping to keep people safe when severe weather strikes and says if you don't have a NOAA Weather Radio ... you should get one.