Dawn Pisturino's Blog

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Remembering the Joplin Tornado 2011

on May 11, 2021

The Joplin, Missouri Tornado

Joplin is an urban community in Jasper County that is situated in the southwest corner of Missouri. Although it boasts an average population of around 49,024, the population swells to 270,000 during the day due to industrial, agricultural, and educational employment and resources. Southwest Missouri is considered part of “tornado alley.”

On Sunday, May 22, 2011, Joplin experienced the deadliest tornado in 47 years and the seventh deadliest in U.S. history. “At 2:40 pm, the National Weather Service (NWS) Storm Prediction Office issued a tornado watch-out for parts of Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma.” Three hours later, the Joplin/Jasper County Emergency Management began coordinating with the NWS to track the path of the storm. At 6:17 pm, a warning was broadcast to the public which gave them approximately 24 minutes to secure themselves in a safe environment. Outdoor emergency sirens were sounded then and again at 6:31 pm. “At 6:41 pm, an EF-5 tornado touched down in Joplin with winds exceeding 200 mph. The tornado cut a 22.1 mile path that was 1 mile wide and passed for 6 miles through the city.”

The results of the storm were devastating. The tornado “almost completely destroyed the commercial district of the city.” More than 15,000 vehicles were carried by the wind to new locations, many of them “rolled into balls of bent metal and broken glass by the force of the storm. In parking lots, concrete barriers designed to stop cars, each of them weighing 200-300 pounds and re-barred into asphalt, [were] plucked into the air and tossed as far as 60 yards.”

At St. John’s Medical Center, 183 patients were evacuated by staff within 90 minutes. Approximately 4,380 homes were completely destroyed; 3,884 homes suffered some kind of damage. More than 130 transmission poles went down, causing power outages to 18,000 customers. Thousands of buildings were destroyed, including St. John’s Medical Center and the Joplin High School. Three million cubic yards of debris lay scattered on the ground. The storm resulted in 161 deaths and 1,371 injuries.

Governor Jay Nixon declared Joplin a disaster area and called out the National Guard. Since “FEMA had been conducting disaster response and recovery in Missouri in the months prior to the Joplin tornado,” President Obama quickly mobilized the agency into action. The Joplin disaster was added to an emergency declaration previously declared by the President.

Joplin, Missouri Preparedness and Mitigation

One of the biggest issues to emerge from the Joplin tornado disaster was the weakness in Jasper County’s warning system. This weakness contributed to the catastrophic loss of life during the the Joplin tornado.

Jasper County’s warning system policy is to “sound sirens over the entire county even if only a part of the county is included, so sirens were sounded for three minutes that day [May 22, 2011] when a tornado warning was issued for the northern part of the county but didn’t include Joplin.”

Three minutes after the last siren was turned off, the National Weather Service (NWS) issued a tornado warning for Joplin. It was decided not to run the siren again. Residents of Joplin missed the tornado warning unless they were watching TV or listening to the radio.

The sirens did not sound again until the tornado was already descending on Joplin, and it was too late for residents to react.

The Springfield, Missouri National Weather Service misidentified and misreported the location of the tornado three times. Joplin residents were led to believe the “tornado would pass north of the city.”

The same National Weather Service was known for sounding the sirens too frequently. Jasper County’s policy — to sound the sirens for both tornado and severe thunderstorms — was based on the premise that any storm bringing strong winds warranted an alarm. Over a four year period, Jasper County issued 34 tornado warnings and sounded the sirens, even though only two tornado warnings were issued. People had become accustomed to the sirens and did not take them seriously.

On the night of May 22, 2011, residents heard the sirens but waited for confirmation of a serious tornado threat by watching TV or looking outside. They later reported confusion over the sirens that sounded right before the tornado hit because they did not understand the urgency of the situation. That urgency was not communicated to them through traditional channels.

People looking outside would not have seen the tornado because it was “completely and totally invisible” due to rain, making people dependent on the warning system. In spite of advanced technology, weather forecasters still cannot determine the course of a tornado because “radar can’t see a tornado moving on the ground.”

“Only human eyes can see a tornado on the ground; trained spotters remain a crucial part of the government’s warning program.” In fact, at 5:31 pm on May 22, 2011, storm chasers sighted a huge storm system west of Joplin and feared the worst. Eight minutes later, the storm turned into an EF-5 tornado. At 5:44 pm, Joplin residents still were not aware that a tornado had landed. People died due to lack of situational awareness.

Joplin suffered approximately $2.8 billion in economic loss due to the tornado. At least 30% of the city was impacted by the event.

It was later determined by the National Institute of Standards and Technology that houses in Joplin were not built to withstand strong winds. More than 83% of structural damage was caused by winds of 135 mph or less — equal to an EF-2 tornado. And 135 deaths were caused by collapsed buildings.

“Tornadoes have winds that create uplift or vertical suction that will pull a poorly-connected roof off of a house.” Many houses were not bolted to a foundation and roofs were not adequately anchored to walls. Home Depot collapsed because the roof was not properly anchored.

Flying debris from houses increased the overall damage. A study done by the American Society of Civil Engineers found that the use of hurricane ties — metal clips used to secure rafters and trusses to the outside walls of a house — were not required on homes by local building codes to withstand strong winds. Furthermore, U.S. model building codes did not require that tornado hazards be addressed at all in building codes.

The hospitals in the Joplin area were not prepared for the overwhelming influx of patients after the tornado. After St. John’s Medical Center was evacuated, the medical staff conducted field triage and medical treatment in the parking lot. People who were unaware of the damage to the hospital continued to bring patients there. Hospitals were forced to operate on emergency generators. Although EMS and medical personnel set up field triage stations throughout Joplin, they were forced to improvise due to a lack of medical supplies. Ambulances treated people on the spot instead of transporting them to the hospitals.

The Incident Command System was not prepared to deal with thousands of responders and volunteers. Responders did not coordinate with the local ICS even though staging areas and check-in procedures were in place. They lacked equipment and training and did not follow consistent protocols. Some buildings were searched multiple times because different groups of responders used different markings. The freelancing responders also posed a safety issue for other responders.

The Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team (DMORT) was overwhelmed by fatalities. In spite of assistance from law enforcement and the Department of Human Health and Services, the team was only able to process 1 or 2 bodies per day. Families were identifying victims, but this stopped after a family misidentified a body. The Missouri Highway Patrol took control of the missing persons list in order to expedite matters. To top it off, personnel did not have training in fatality management.

Volunteers lacked training, supplies, and affiliations with well-established organizations. AmeriCorps took over management of volunteers.

“Communications and information sharing between the [Joint Field Office] and the [Joplin Division Office] proved to be challenging during the initial response.” There was no clear chain of command. The use of large data files with email and voice mail led to poor information management and dissemination. No common operating picture (COP) could be created due to an inadequate information management system. This hurt FEMA’s credibility.

During the tornado, social media was not effective because Joplin residents did not know what exactly was going on. Local leaders later realized that there was not enough engagement between the City of Joplin and the public. The city’s website was difficult to navigate for anybody seeking information.

On the positive side, “participation in the National Level Exercise 2011 (NLE 11) helped to prepare Federal, State, regional, local, and private sector personnel to respond effectively to the Joplin tornado.” From May 16-19, 2011, participants simulated a catastrophic earthquake. FEMA Region VII and the State of Missouri developed the Joint FEMA Region VII and State of Missouri New Madrid Earthquake Response Operations Plan. During the exercises, Missouri emergency management and response agencies practiced plans and procedures for mass casualty evacuation, mutual aid, and EMAC. The resources, systems, procedures, and partnerships exercised were later used in the Joplin response. Agencies learned how to activate and use regional resources. They learned about FEMA grant programs. They learned how to use a mobile field hospital and a patient moving and tracking system.

Over the years, “Southwest Missouri jurisdictions had undertaken a number of regional preparedness initiatives that proved instrumental for the response to the Joplin tornado.” These jurisdictions worked cooperatively on grants, exercises, training, and other preparedness opportunities within the Missouri Homeland Security Region D. FEMA training in ICS and other systems and procedures enabled a rapid, effective, coordinated regional response to the Joplin tornado.

The Response to the Joplin Tornado

The response to Joplin’s tornado followed FEMA’s Whole Community approach. “This only transpired because of the preparedness partnerships that had been developed among Federal, State, local, private sector, voluntary, and non-profit entities.” These partnerships “enabled emergency responders to meet the needs of survivors immediately after the Joplin tornado.”

The Four Corners Emergency Management mutual aid agreements were activated. The Southwest Missouri Incident Support Team provided valuable support to the Joplin/Jasper County emergency operations center (EOC). The team had received training and equipment through grants from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The Incident Support Team “used its satellite capabilities to augment communications to the Joplin/Jasper County EOC.”

Four Corners Emergency Management handled all calls for aid from Joplin. The Crawford County Health Department sent nurses and portable refrigerators to Joplin. Greene County provided 110 responders from the Sheriff’s Office, the Office of Emergency Management, the Highway Department, Building and Development Services, and Public Information.”

EMS and medical personnel, with the help of mutual aid agencies, set up field triage and medical treatment stations throughout Joplin. The State of Missouri activated the Missouri I Disaster Medical team, which set up an 8,000 square-foot, 60 bed mobile field hospital to treat patients.

Responders from more than 400 public safety organizations were sent to Joplin from Illinois, Kansas, Oklahoma, and other states as a result of the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC). “Within 24 hours of the tornado, more than 800 police cars, 300 ambulances, 400 fire trucks, and 1,100 responders had arrived in Joplin to contribute to response operations.”

The City of Joplin worked with the Southwest Missouri Incident Support Team to create staging areas and check-in protocols. Standard Incident Command System procedures were established, and the daily Incident Action Plan was produced and distributed.

The Joplin Fire department lost two fire stations and necessary equipment during the tornado. But the department had to respond to routine calls as well as deal with the aftermath of the tornado. Help arrived from fire departments throughout southwest Missouri. Rural fire departments provided tanker trucks. The Southwest Missouri Incident Support Team contributed an experienced commander to help with operations. Integrated teams were developed, using both Joplin fire personnel and mutual aid responders. The Pierce Manufacturing Company loaned the city two pumper trucks. FEMA erected two modular buildings to replace the two fire stations that were destroyed.

The City of Joplin kept the community informed through press conferences, press releases, and news alerts. officials used email, the city’s website, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to disseminate information about shelters, volunteer opportunities, making donations, disaster recovery centers, and registering for FEMA disaster aid. The city tried to help victims and family members find each other.

Non-profit organizations such as the American Red Cross, AmeriCorps, and Citizens Corps descended on Joplin to help with the response. AmeriCorps established a missing persons hotline and agreed to manage the thousands of volunteers who arrived to help.

The Joplin Humane Society and Joplin Animal Control, with help from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the American Humane Association, the Humane Society of the United States, and Red Rover, opened animal shelters to house the hundreds of animals left homeless by the tornado. The Missouri Veterinary Medical Association sent three Missouri Volunteer Veterinary Corps (MOVVC) veterinarians to Joplin to care for the animals.

Utilities were quickly restored after the tornado due to the dedicated efforts of utility workers and mutual aid assistance from all over the Midwest. Sprint’s Emergency Response Team provided satellite phones and wireless devices to public safety officials. Company representatives from the private sector coordinated with State officials to get utilities restored.

The Federal Coordinating Officer at FEMA assigned Liaison Officers to particular city officials to keep them abreast of pertinent information and to respond to questions posed by city officials. This strengthened the coordination between Joplin and FEMA to provide disaster relief to the city. The Joplin Division Office of FEMA reached out to the community with instructions on how to register for disaster aid.

FEMA already had a strong presence in Missouri due to multiple disasters which had already occurred. On May 9, 2011, President Obama issued declaration FEMA-DR-1980 for five Missouri counties. On May 23, 2011, FEMA administrator Craig Fugate amended DR-1980 to include Jasper County. This allowed FEMA to provide Individual Assistance, debris removal, and emergency protective measures funding to individuals who registered for assistance.

What Changed After the Joplin Tornado

“Recovery and response efforts in Joplin were a combination of public and private efforts . . . the robust recovery in Joplin to date is due largely to federal, state, and local officials’ taking a hands-off approach to the recovery.”

More than 92,000 registered volunteers racked up more than 528,000 volunteer hours on Joplin’s response and recovery as of November 2011. Social media became a crucial tool in coordinating volunteer efforts.

“Insurance companies’ quick responses following the Joplin tornado helped tornado victims — both homeowners and business owners — get immediate relief.” Insurance adjusters arrived quickly in Joplin to assess rebuilding needs. “Insurance payments in Joplin exceeded $2 billion.”

Businesses actively participated in donating supplies and money to the recovery. Children became entrepreneurs and sold lemonade in order to contribute to the cause. Most importantly, businesses made commitments to quickly rebuild. Less than four months after the tornado, 69% of destroyed or damaged businesses had reopened.

The American Society of Civil Engineers concluded in a 2013 study that post-tornado houses in Joplin should be required to install hurricane ties that secure the rafters and trusses to the outside walls. But during the first months of recovery, “Joplin city officials unofficially waived building regulations, procedures, and local zoning laws in the immediate aftermath of the tornado” in order to facilitate rebuilding. The same study also recommended that safe rooms be incorporated into schools, hospitals, and other buildings. Yet, Joplin city officials opted not to require the installation of safe rooms in the aftermath of the tornado due to increased building costs. It was not until later that Joplin agreed to mandate hurricane ties on new home construction. The City also agreed to mandate anchor bolts, which attach a building’s frame to the foundation, and masonry reinforced with metal bars. The city finally agreed to start requiring safe rooms and wind-resistant windows in schools, hospitals, and other buildings.

A moratorium on new housing construction was implemented to facilitate debris removal. FEMA agreed to pay for 90% of debris removal and the State of Missouri agreed to pay the remaining 10%.

Six months after the tornado, FEMA released an update on Joplin’s recovery efforts. They revealed that the Army Corps of Engineers had facilitated debris removal and the construction of temporary buildings for schools, the fire department, and the hospital. Since 9,500 residents had been displaced from their homes, the Housing Task Force had been working hard to provide rentals for them.

After the tornado, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recommended changes in Jasper County’s warning system that would more effectively communicate urgent warnings to the public. Some of their recommendations included sirens with different sounds, the use of color coding on TV and online to indicate the severity of a storm threat, and using social media and mobile devices to communicate more accurate weather information to the public. The agency also recommended that weather forecasters become more proactive and use ominous and forceful language to convey urgency about imminent threats.

Based on these recommendations, Jasper County applied for federal funding to purchase 10,000 weather radios and construct 4,000 storm shelters, both of which were seriously lacking prior to the tornado.

CivicPlus, a government website builder, agreed in 2012 to build a new website for the City of Joplin. The company built a user-friendly website that enhances two-way engagement between city officials and the public, especially during emergencies.

Other social media networkers have created pages on Facebook and Twitter to prepare their own communities for disaster and provide information on emergency response and recovery. One such site is “Joplin Tornado Info,” started by Rebecca Williams and her mother, Genevieve, right after the tornado. The page still actively relays information about Joplin and its recovery efforts.

Missouri hospitals upgraded their emergency response capabilities after the Joplin tornado. The Missouri Hospital Association concluded: “Hospital leadership and management and emergency planners must continue to make emergency preparedness a top priority within their organizations.”

Mental health professionals conducted a study on the effects of the Joplin tornado on the community and found that “long-term community disaster mental health monitoring, assessment, referral, outreach, and services are needed following a major disaster like the 2011 Joplin tornado.” The effects of such a disaster can lead to long-term depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and cause dysfunction in people who have not received post-disaster mental health services. According to Houston, “a significant amount of mental health outreach and referral was evident in the 1.5 years following the tornado.”

Conclusion

The residents of Joplin, Missouri had grown accustomed to storm threats bypassing their community, so they had no reason to believe that a third of the city would be destroyed by an EF-5 tornado on May 22, 2011.

They had grown accustomed to warning sirens blaring whenever weather forecasters spotted a storm with strong winds. Joplin residents had no reason to believe that the sirens which sounded on May 22, 2011 were any different from the ones they had heard hundreds of times before.

Weather forecasters could see on radar that a terrible storm was brewing, but they did not have the capability to recognize the formation of a deadly tornado until it was too late.

The City of Joplin was ill-prepared to withstand a tornado or any storm system with strong winds. Building codes did not require hurricane ties, anchor bolts, wind-resistant glass, or safe rooms. The city had few, if any, community storm shelters. The use of weather radios was not a common practice.

On the other hand, the City of Joplin, Jasper County, and the State of Missouri were well-prepared to respond to a disaster event. “FEMA had been conducting disaster response and recovery in Missouri in the months prior to the Joplin tornado.” The State already had experience dealing with FEMA and had spent several years building up preparedness relationships. Officials from Jasper County and the City of Joplin had participated in the Department of Homeland Security’s National Level Exercise 2011 program a few days before the tornado. They applied what they had learned to the response. And since President Obama had already issued FEMA-DR-1980 for five Missouri counties earlier in the year, it was easy for DHS administrator Craig Fugate to amend that declaration to include Jasper County.

Joplin’s response to the tornado was based on FEMA’s Whole Community approach. Mutual aid contracts were activated. Within 24 hours, help arrived from other Midwestern states and counties throughout southwest Missouri. Non-profit organizations set up relief shelters, hotlines, and animal shelters. Businesses donated money and supplies.

Joplin leadership encouraged the community to rebuild quickly, using all available resources. The residents of Joplin showed resiliency, flexibility, and adaptability in their recovery.

Dawn Pisturino

October 2019

Thomas Edison State University

Copyright 2019-2021 Dawn Pisturino. All Rights Reserved.

Please contact author for sources.


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