Year of the Twisters (Part 2)

(I split this up into two parts because the original post was getting too big)

Now Joplin, that’s an entirely different deal. The first half of May was incredibly quiet tornado-wise, the most since early March actually, since there was NOTHING on the horizon. The one system that went through the Plains busted (I didn’t even give a crap about it, since it didn’t look all that good in the first place, and I had finals). The next system, around May 19th, was to do some weird thing or cut off, a one day show at best. That all changed very fast as the event neared, although again I paid very little attention. Instead of cutting off, it would do something that would keep the moisture and instability around for several days, while slowly lifting out. This would then open the door for another system to come around May 24th. Thus the whole week, from the 19th to the 25th or so, became primed for severe weather – the first legitimate threat since April 27th.

All I remember the night of May 21st (besides the tornadoes in KS/OK that evening) was that the 0Z and prior runs of the NAM had progged a big MCS(s) to leave (a) giant cold pool(s) anywhere between AR and IL. Both in fact, ended up verifying, but not to the extent of what was shown. However, because of the NAM, the SPC went bearish on its 06Z outlook, painting a SLGT risk with 10% hatched tornado probs from MN/WI to OK. The next morning, when it was obvious the cold pools were overdone, the SPC upgraded everything to 15% hatched from IA north and mentioned strong tornadoes. Meanwhile, I was asleep, and slept through church. I woke up at noon (!!!) as supercells were already erupting from MN to IA to MO to KS. I had expected early initiation in a veered low-level environment, but something about these fledgling storms bothered/excited me. Nevertheless, I went to Costco with my family.

When I came back, the first page I opened was the radar page (sense a theme here?). The northern storms were not that impressive. But then I opened SGF and there was a curious signature near Joplin. It was a rain-wrapped hook! Now the key is, with the low-res radar I looked at, you couldn’t see the debris balls and stuff – and the highest risk was IA and north! So I scoffed at it and said, okay, whatever… until I opened the forum, and they were talking about 180 kt shear and debris balls and damage in Joplin, and I was like, oh crap. Then Mike Bettis and his TWC crew opened up his stream, and we all saw the terrible damage – Live – around St. Johns Hospital. It was, as many described it (accurately, might I add), Tuscaloosa-esque. My heart sank. But even as Bettis walked around dead bodies, even as I observed the 4000 CAPE / 300 ESRH environment, somewhere in there I believed this would be EF3 to EF4 at most, with maybe about 20-30 fatalities assuming a linear relationship between tornado violence and fatalities in a large city. I was downplaying this the whole time — very dumb. Part of me couldn’t believe it was happening again – especially when the tornado risk was *only* 10% hatched, lower than IA/WI/MN.

Within hours the death toll would be placed at 30, then 89, then 116 by the next day. The rest is history. People are still dying around local hospitals; the death toll continues to rise. It’s the 6th deadliest tornado in U.S. history, and the deadliest since 1947. Another generational event. It took me a few hours to grasp what had happened. It took me days to believe it.

What’s amazing about both the Tuscaloosa and Joplin events was that I was not really thinking of tornadoes while I was doing other stuff, and I was pretty nonchalant opening the radar. What’s different was that I panicked after seeing Tuscaloosa, but I remained calm after seeing Joplin. Something about expectations, you know… you can believe a violent tornado in Tuscaloosa on a maxi-high risk day, but not really when you have a low-end moderate with a 10% hatched, and the highest threat’s north of you. And that’s probably why that, while 40+ people were killed in Tuscaloosa, 140+ have been killed in Joplin. Public awareness goes a long way, and heck, even the emergency responders and news channels were slow to realize in the Joplin case. Many services were understaffed on a quiet Sunday afternoon.

I was going to write more, but the narrative part has burned me out. For me, I remember dates by the tornadoes they produce. April 27th and May 22nd are going to be up there. People remember where they were, what they were doing, for events like 9/11. Likewise, I remember the lead-up and all the surroundings for these big tornado events. More now than ever, the tornado is in my blood. I was a youngster in 2005 when all those hurricanes blasted through. But I have come of age, and the 2011 Tornado Siege will always be a big benchmark in my life.


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