On May 22, 2011 an EF5 tornado made direct contact with the City of Joplin and the surrounding Jasper County in Missouri. I chose to study this event as it was significant in bringing about swift reforms to hazard mitigation and preparation. The response to this event was similar to that of Katrina from a hurricane. Differences between the two events are primarily in duration, intensity, and area of destruction. This was something I was unable to report on in my case study but found very interesting.
Prior to 2011, the citizens of Joplin were wildly unprepared for any tornados to occur. Before 2011, the last EF5 tornado recorded in Missouri was in 1957 (F5 Raskin Heights) and a distant memory that did not bring about any changes to mitigation for tornados. Furthermore, perceived notions that tornados would not make direct contact with Joplin were aided by the statistic that hundreds of EF2 or lower tornados had hit the surrounding area without impacting Joplin. Only 1 EF2 or greater tornado was recorded in Joplin in the 50 years prior to the May 22, 2011 EF5. When the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center issued severe thunderstorm warnings in the days prior to May 22 no preparations were made and no building codes had been changed since 1988. Additionally, public perception of the dangers from tornados was greatly reduced due to assumptions of false alarms via the tornado siren system. This system was used once a year and went off twice in 3 minute intervals prior to the tornado entering Joplin at 5:11 P.M. CDT. This resulted in no immediate preparation and initial cues to leave the area and evacuate came from word of mouth rather than officials. NIST findings on the Joplin tornado found that no community shelters, safe rooms, or tornado-resistant buildings had been constructed in Joplin and Jasper County leaving the population of just over 20,000 highly vulnerable to the hazards present from the tornado.
Above is a photo of the destruction in Joplin a day after the tornado hit. Further findings in the NIST study found that 96% of the 161 deaths resulted from blunt force trauma and from windspeed associated with EF3 or below tornados. This is significant because it does not reflect that the damage was caused by the labeled EF5 that the tornado reached. Below is a photo of the destruction path with associated windspeed for a better visual of the tornados progress from an EF2 to an EF5 as it progressed through Joplin.
The result of this direct path by an EF5 tornado had dire consequences for a population unprepared for such an event. Critical care facilities, first responders, and communications were all impacted in a way that slowed recovery in the immediate aftermath. Most importantly, the hospital in Joplin suffered damages that resulted in the death of 3 individuals in the ICU. Critical care facilities as well as public buildings such as schools did not have shelters or adequate codes to prevent the damages from the tornado.
The recovery of Joplin was due to a hands off approach by officials and the government as the public and private sector took over rebuilding and clearing Joplin. Funding from the federal government and thousands of volunteers lead to a robust recovery that could be observed as similar to that of the involvement in the private sector after Katrina. A statistic that I found amazing was the involvement of a recorded 92,000 registered volunteers by November of 2011 that contributed over 500,000 hours of community service. Other notable contributions included donations from organizations such as the Red Cross and actors such as Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt whoo donated $500,000. Schools and critical care facilities were reopened within months and entered 2012 with new codes that improved design and safety. After clearing 1.5 million cubic feet of debris, the public began to rebuild with the newfound knowledge to place storm shelters in their homes. Overall, the lessons learned from the May 22, 2011 Joplin tornado provided can example to the Mid West to increase readiness for storms by improving systems that were in place or by enacting them.