The Joplin tornado was an EF-5 tornado on the Fujita scale (winds exceeded 200 mph 261 to 318 mph) and killed at least 116 people, although some sources claimed it killed more than that, at about 162 people. The tornado injured more than 1,000 people. In total, the tornado was devastating, affecting 13, 547 people and indirectly impacting 2,500 others. The tornado itself was a mile wide and six miles long and lasted for 38 minutes. It left a 22-mile path of destruction, affecting 1,800 acres of land. It was the deadliest single tornado since modern record keeping began in 1950, (surpassing the June 8, 1953 tornado in Flint, Michigan that killed 166 people). The tornado caused more deaths than the annual number of U.S. tornado deaths in the last three decades- around 55 tornado deaths annually, so the Joplin tornado caused three times as many deaths as this in one single event.

The tornado, as described by survivors, tossed cars “like toys”, flattened buildings, and ripped up pavement. Dead bodies and later body bags littered the ground. An article in National Geographic described the aftermath as like “World War 2 bomb destruction”. Tornados are hazards of thunderstorms, which occur when warm, moist air masses and cold, dry air masses collide. Tornadoes are known to hit the Deep South in early spring. The Joplin tornado may have been caused by warmer-than usual air in the Golf of Mexico, in which temperatures were 2 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than usual.

I chose this case because the sheer amounts of death and destruction it caused. I wanted to know why. I found in my research these possible reasons for the high death toll and destruction: The sheer magnitude of the event (it was an EF-5), it’s path through densely populated and business areas and large damage area, the characteristics of the homes hit and affected in Joplin by the tornado and the resident’s desensitization to frequent warning sirens.


  1. Wow! 6 miles long? That’s huge! How does this figure compare to the average tornado? I also found it interesting how a slight increase of 2 degrees could have such a large impact. You mention that residents are desensitized to storm warnings. Have they experienced any tornadoes before? How can this be mitigated for similar areas, so that if/when an event like this happens, the population knows to take it seriously?

  2. Your last point makes you wonder if there should be different warning levels for different degrees of tornado so when there is a real big one coming you are more aware or informed. It is hard to envision a 6 mile long tornado that moves at a tenth of a mile an hour but that would make sense of the destruction it left behind. Was there any survivors who weathered the storm a specific way that worked well?

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