Interactive Slide Shows Joplin Before, After Tornado

By now, most if not all of us know what happened in Joplin, Missouri, on Sunday, May 22, 2011: the deadliest tornado in the modern era slashed across the city, killing at least 125 people. Now, a clever, interactive sleight of hand put together by The Hartford Courant enables readers to view the remarkable destruction in before-and-after satellite images.

Joplin, Missouri, before and after May 22, 2011 tornado.
Click image to load the full, interactive version on The Hartford Courant's site.

The image above is a screen capture of the before and after photos. A slider that you control, visible in the middle of the photo, separates the two images on the interactive version of the page: slide it right and you can see a full screen image of what southeast Joplin looked like before the violent EF5 tornado hit; slide it left, and the before image disappears, revealing the carnage left behind. Right again, and the greenness of neighborhoods in late spring with trees full of leaves lining tidy streets, the high school standing proud, unfolds across the screen. Left again, and the life many Joplin residents knew peels away, replaced by block after block of brown debris and lifeless destruction, including the decimated high school. It’s like something out of The Wizard of Oz, only in reverse, and makes one wonder how it could be that more people weren’t killed.

Deadliest Tornado in Modern Era Slashes Missouri

It hasn’t even been a month since violent, history making tornadoes made headlines across the United States, and yet here we are with another grim tornado record. The death toll from the violent tornado that shredded as much as a third of Joplin, Missouri, Sunday evening reached 116 Monday afternoon. That makes it the single deadliest tornado to strike the United States since NOAA began keeping reliable records of tornado fatalities in 1950. It took the top spot from the Flint, Michigan, twister of June 8, 1953, which killed 115.
The number of dead in Joplin jumped from 89 earlier in the day as news of recoveries as well as rescues were reported. While the number of dead is fully anticipated to increase, news outlets reported that at least five missing families were found buried alive in the rubble, which stretches block after unrecognizable block across six miles of the southwestern Missouri city of 50,000. More than 500 people in Joplin were injured, and the damage is eerily familiar, looking so much like the utter carnage witnessed in Tuscaloosa  on April 27, 2011, when 65 died in that day’s twister.
The tornado event attributed to the single highest loss of life on American soil is the “Tri-State” tornado of March 18, 1925, which rampaged across southeastern Missouri, southern Illinois, and into southwestern Indiana. It killed 695 people on its seemingly unending 219-mile journey. But that was prior to our knowledge of families of tornadoes and the cyclical nature of long-lived supercell thunderstorms to form, mature, dissipate, and reform tornadoes, keeping damage paths seemingly continuous.
Prior to the effort by the U.S. Weather Bureau, precursor to the National Weather Service and NOAA, to maintain detailed accounts of tornadoes—and 64 years before yesterday’s event in Joplin—the last single-deadliest tornado in a long list of killer U.S. tornadoes was the 1947 Woodward, Oklahoma, tornado, which claimed 181 lives.
Yesterday there was also one fatality from a destructive tornado that hit Minneapolis, and that and Joplin’s toll combined with last month’s back-to-back tornado outbreaks, plus a handful of earlier tornado deaths this year, brings 2011’s death toll from tornadoes to 482—more than eight times the average of the past 50 years and second (in the modern era) only to the 519 recorded deaths from twisters in 1953. Two-thirds of this year’s fatalities occurred during April 27’s epic tornado outbreak across the South.
The Weather Channel has been providing continuing coverage of the rescue and recovery efforts in Joplin, with one of its crews arriving on scene moments after the tornado. The level of destruction in the city was too much to bear even for one of its seasoned on-air meteorologists. TWC also is reporting along with NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center on the possibility of yet another tornado outbreak, this time in the central Plains on Tuesday.

Struggling to Categorize an Epic Tornado Outbreak

The numbers practically defy comprehension: 327 people killed in a single day; nearly that many reports of tornadoes that fateful day, April 27, 2011, when nature went on a spectacular rampage across the South; violent tornadoes in Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, and Georgia that generated winds of 180 mph, 190 mph, over 200 mph, ripping bark from trees, pavement from roads, even earth from the ground (video from The Weather Channel explains the scouring), and people from their homes and businesses, in cities and towns small and large; tornadoes that chewed up and spat out lives and belongings, mile after mile, for 132 miles straight in one twister. Having watched similarly violent yet lesser events unfold over the years and decades as warning times have steadily increased, in some cases long enough to jump in your car and drive out of harm’s way, it did not seem possible we’d ever again witness such devastation and widespread death from tornado winds, especially in a nation that has the best warning system for severe weather in the world. As has become painfully clear these last two weeks, however, one has to look way back to 1925—more than an average human lifetime ago—when either a single, marathon twister or a family of vicious vortices known as the Tri-State Tornado thundered across 219 consecutive miles of the Midwest and consumed nearly 700 lives—to find similarly overwhelming tragedy from tornadoes in the United States in a single day.
Annual tornado climatology and statistics for our nation make the historic events of April 27, 2011, even more difficult to believe: 60 people on average lose their lives to tornadoes each year–and for the past decade we’ve considered that number to be excessive; it takes 365 days annually to produce the 1,300 tornadoes we usually have, yet almost a quarter of those may now have happened in just a single 24-hour period (there were 292 reports of tornadoes on April 27, and the NWS has confirmed 143 so far); and fewer than 1% of all tornadoes recorded on our soil over decades ever churn with such violence that they are rated in the top tier of the Fujita tornado intensity scale, regardless of its evolving criteria … yet we had at least three of these most destructive tornadoes strike Mississippi and Alabama on this recent deadly April day.
Stunned weather enthusiasts and meteorologists alike have been searching for more than a week for ways to classify this maelstrom of tornadoes. Some have tried to fit this event into the mold created by the most prolific and extraordinary tornado event in U.S. history—the Super Outbreak of April 3-4, 1974, which in just 18 hours delivered 148 tornadoes that tore up more than 2,500 miles of 13 Midwestern, Southern, and Eastern states and  included 30 tornadoes rated violent 4s and 5s at the top end of the original Fujita tornado intensity scale.
Bloggers are beginning to offer comparisons between April 27 and that historic day, nearly four decades ago, especially because the Super Outbreak’s toll of 330 killed is comparable. The event two weeks ago is considered a “textbook” tornado outbreak: “I mean, literally what I learned from a textbook more than 30 years ago,” writes Senior Forecaster Stu Ostro of The Weather Channel (TWC) on his blog. “Not only were the (atmospheric) elements perfect for a tornado outbreak, they were present to an extreme degree,” he notes. It was of the caliber defined by the Palm Sunday outbreak of 1965, the blitzkrieg of twisters across the Ohio Valley on May 29-30, 2004, as well as the Super Outbreak, which Greg Forbes, TWC Severe Weather Expert, says has since become the benchmark for all tornado outbreaks. Indeed, just last year Storm Prediction Center (SPC) tornado and severe weather forecaster Steve Corfidi, et al., published the article “Revisiting the 3–4 April 1974 Super Outbreak of Tornadoes,” in which they state: “The Super Outbreak of tornadoes over the central and eastern United States on 3–4 April 1974 remains the most outstanding severe convective weather episode on record in the continental United States.” What happened on April 27, 2011, however, may have rewritten the tornado textbook, and reset that benchmark, states Jon Davies, a meteorologist and noted Great Plains storm chaser who has been studying severe weather forecasting for 25 years. He wrote in a blog post last week that the setup for tornadoes on April 27, 2011 was “rare and quite extraordinary.” The combination of low-level wind shear and atmospheric instability was “optimum,” creating a “tragic and historic tornado outbreak [that] was unprecedented in the past 75 years of U.S. history, topping even the 1974 ‘Super Outbreak.’”
That comparison is the ongoing debate as the severity of the tornadoes defining the outbreak of April 27 comes into better focus. So far, 14 of its tornadoes have been rated 4 or greater on the Enhanced Fujita (EF) Scale. With more than twice that many in the Super Outbreak, which were rated using the earlier Fujita tornado intensity scale (compare the two scales), it would seem this new event falls short. But Forbes cautions that likening the April 27 tornado outbreak to the Super Outbreak simply using number of violent tornadoes has its pitfalls.

“I was part of the team that developed the EF Scale, and it’s a system that more accurately estimates tornado wind speeds. But it troubled me then (and still does) that it might be hard to compare past tornado outbreaks with future ones and determine which was worst. It’s apples and oranges, to some extent, in the rating systems then and now.”

That’s a statement that could be applied to today’s severe weather forecasting, technological observation, and warnings for severe weather, which have improved significantly in the last 37 years. In his blog post, Recipe for calamity, NCAR meteorologist Bob Henson looks beyond the ingredients that caused the April 27 tornado outbreak and seeks to consider why the human toll of this tragedy was so massive. He mentions that some parts of the South had been hit by severe thunderstorms and damaging winds earlier that day, which knocked out power and may have disrupted communications in areas that tornadoes barreled through later in the afternoon and evening. The speed of the twisters as well as the lack of safe places to hide from such extreme winds also likely fed the outcome. Of note, too, is mention that perhaps the density of the population centers hit by such dangerous winds resulted in a far greater toll than otherwise would have been realized. This insight comes from Roger Edwards, a forecaster and tornado researcher with SPC. Edwards has a long track record of trying to better educate a populace about the realities of severe storms and tornadoes. He blogged about the catastrophe on April 27, 2011, offering this matter-of-fact consideration: “When you have violent, huge tornadoes moving through urban areas, they will cause casualties.” Edwards then follows this statement, in a subsequent post on the April 27 tornado outbreak, with a poignant look at where we seem to be in the inevitable collision of an expanding population with bouts of severe weather:

“I can say fairly safely that a major contributor here clearly was population density. Even though 3 April 1974 affected a few decent sized towns (Xenia, Brandenburg) and the suburbs of one big metro (Sayler Park, for Cincinnati), a greater coverage area of heavy developed land seemed to be in the way of this day’s tornadoes. How much? I’d like to see a land-use comparison. Harold Brooks and Chuck Doswell [current and retired tornado scientists with the National Severe Storms Laboratory, respectively] have discussed the phenomenon of sprawl as a factor in future tornado death risk and the possible nadir of fatalities having been reached…and the future seems to have arrived.”

Viewing this spring’s deadly onslaught of severe weather through that lens makes it all too clear we’ve been here before: recall a late-August Monday on the central Gulf Coast nearly six years ago shattered by an almost unimaginable, hurricane-whipped surge of seawater that drowned coastal communities in southeast Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. Ostro prefers to use the perspective that event gave us when sizing up the April 27 tornado event:

“So that makes this the Katrina of tornado outbreaks, in the sense that it’s a vivid and tragic reminder that although high death tolls from tornadoes and hurricanes are much less common than they were in the 19th and first part of the 20th centuries, we are not immune to them, even in this era of modern meteorological and communication technology.”

A focus on the human toll of the April tornado tragedy might be the facet that really sets this outbreak apart. One of the most remarkable reports came from Jeff Masters’ blog entry of May 5, 2011—eight days after the outbreak. Noting the extreme number of deaths from the tornadoes and how the toll had fluctuated because some victims were counted twice, he wrote: “There are still hundreds of people missing from the tornado, and search teams have not yet made it to all of the towns ravaged by the tornadoes.” Hundreds missing. Even if that number is off by a factor or 10, this outbreak will be historic for its toll in human lives. Almost two weeks since the outbreak, Alabama’s Emergency Management Agency continues to post daily situation reports in which it states that the number of casualties in the state is “to be published at a later time.” The reasons are spelled out vividly in this blog post from The Huntsville Times, which details accounts from survivors of perhaps the day’s most violent tornado, an EF5 with winds estimated at 210 mph that destroyed much of Hackleburg, a town of 1,600 people in northwest Alabama. At least 18 people lost their lives there. Twenty-one-year-old resident Tommy Quinn said only one person died on his street, the Times reports. But six days after the tornado obliterated the area, a neighbor still hadn’t been found. “We can’t even find her house,” Quinn said.
As is evident in this blend of writings and perceptions, the devastatingly deadly tornado outbreak of April 27, 2011, was an epic event, rivaling even the most revered such disaster in the modern era. What these experts and others are finding, though, is that while the April 27 outbreak was indeed exceptional in many ways, and history will likely reveal it to be a meteorological event unprecedented in some aspects, it seems the Super Outbreak of 1974 won’t be stripped of its meteorological prominence, at least not fully. Instead, the tornado outbreak that occurred on April 27, which was truly remarkable, will be referred to in its own way, likely earning a signature nom de guerre through its shockingly violent legacy.

New from AMS: Joanne Simpson Mentorship Award

The AMS has introduced a new award in recognition of the career-long dedication and commitment to the advancement of women in the atmospheric sciences by legendary pioneering meteorologist Joanne Simpson.
The new Joanne Simpson Mentorship Award recognizes individuals in academia, government, or the private sector, who, over a substantial period of time, have provided outstanding and inspiring mentorship of professional colleagues or students.  The award is separate from the honor bestowed upon exceptional teachers mentoring students, which is covered by the AMS Teaching Excellence Award.

Joanne Simpson
Joanne Simpson.

Simpson was the first women to earn a Ph.D. in meteorology, and her distinguished achievements include creating nearly singlehandedly the discipline of cloud studies, determining the source of heat energy that drives hurricanes, and leading a decade-long effort at NASA that culminated in establishment of the ground-breaking Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM). Her career spanned more than 50 years, during which she challenged the male-dominated establishment in meteorology and fought for equal footing for women in the sciences. Although she passed away nearly a year ago, her enduring spirit continues to pave a pathway forward for other women pioneers in meteorology and the related sciences.
As with all AMS awards, nominations for the Joanne Simpson Mentorship Award are considered by the AMS Awards Oversight Committee.
Online submission of nominations for the new award will be accepted until May 1. The first Joanne Simpson Mentorship Award will be presented at the 2012 Annual Meeting in New Orleans.

Commutageddon, Again and Again

Time and again this winter, blizzards and other snow and ice storms have trapped motorists on city streets and state highways, touching off firestorms of griping and finger pointing at local officials. Most recently, hundreds of motorists became stranded on Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive as 70 mph gusts buried vehicles during Monday’s mammoth Midwest snowstorm. Last week, commuters in the nation’s capital became victims of icy gridlock as an epic thump of snow landed on the Mid Atlantic states. And two weeks before, residents and travelers in northern Georgia abandoned their snowbound vehicles on the interstate loops around Atlanta, securing their shutdown for days until the snow and ice melted.
Before each of these crippling events, and historically many others, meteorologists, local and state law enforcement, the media, and city and state officials routinely cautioned and then warned drivers, even pleading with them, to avoid travel. Yet people continue to miss, misunderstand, or simply ignore the message for potentially dangerous winter storms to stay off the roads.
Obviously such messages can be more effective. While one might envision an intelligent transportation system warning drivers in real time when weather might create unbearable traffic conditions,  such services are in their infancy, despite the proliferation of mobile GPS devices that include traffic updates. Not surprisingly, the 2011 AMS Annual Meeting in January on “Communicating Weather and Climate” offered a lot of findings about generating effective warnings. One presentation in particular—”The essentials of a weather warning message: what, where, when, and intensity”—focused directly on the issues raised by the recent snow snafu’s. In it, author Joel Curtis of the NWS in Juneau, Alaska, explains that in addition to the basic what, where, and when information, a warning must convey intensity to guide the level of response from the receiver.
Key to learning how to create and disseminate clear and concise warnings is understanding why useful information sometimes seems to fall on deaf ears. Studies such as the Hayden and Morss presentation “Storm surge and “certain death”: Interviews with Texas coastal residents following Hurricane Ike” and Renee Lertzman’s “Uncertain futures, anxious futures: psychological dimensions of how we talk about the weather” are moving the science of meteorological communication forward by figuring out how and why people are using the information they receive.
Post-event evaluation remains critical to improving not only dissemination but also the effectiveness of warnings and statements. In a blog post last week following D.C.’s drubbing of snow, Jason Samenow of the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang (CWG) wondered whether his team of forecasters, and its round-the-clock trumpeting of the epic event, along with the bevy of weather voices across the capital region could have done more to better warn people of the quick-hitting nightmare snowstorm now known as “Commutageddon.” He concluded that, other than smoothing over the sometimes uneven voice of local media even when there’s a clear signal for a disruptive storm, there needs to be a wider effort to get the word out about potential “weather emergencies, or emergencies of any type.” He sees technology advances that promote such social networking sites as Twitter and Facebook as new ways to “blast the message.”
Even with rapidly expanding technology, however, it’s important to recognize that simply offering information comes with the huge responsibility of making sure it’s available when the demand is greatest. As CWG reported recently in its blog post “Weather Service website falters at critical time,” the NWS learned the hard way this week the pitfalls of offering too much information. As the Midwest snowstorm was ramping up, the “unprecedented demand” of 15-20 million hits an hour on NWS websites led to pages loading sluggishly or not at all. According to NWS spokesman Curtis Carey: “The traffic was beyond the capacity we have in place. [It even] exceeded the week of Snowmageddon,” when there were two billion page views on a network that typically sees just 70 million page views a day.
So virtual gridlock now accompanies road gridlock? The communications challenges of a deep snow continue to accumulate…

2011 Meisinger Award Winner Working to Solve Hurricane Intensity Problem

NCAR researcher George Bryan received the 2011 Clarence Leroy Meisinger Award at the 91st AMS Annual Meeting in Seattle for innovative research into the explicit modeling, theory, and observations of convective-scale motions. With this award, the AMS honors promising young or early-career scientists who have demonstrated outstanding ability. “Early career” refers to scientists who are within 10 years of having earned their highest degree or are under 40 years of age when nominated.
The Front Page sought out Dr. Bryan to learn more about the specific problems he is working to solve with his colleagues at NCAR. “We’ve been doing numerical simulations of hurricanes in idealized environments trying to understand what regulates hurricane intensity,” he says. “One of the things we found was that small-scale turbulence is very important, small-scale being less than a kilometer scale—boundary layer eddies in the eyewall, and things like that. And so we’re hoping to take what we learned from that and apply it towards real-time forecasts and real-time numerical model simulations to better improve intensity.” In the interview, available below, Bryan says knowing this will give forecasters a better idea how strong a hurricane is likely to be when one does make landfall.

Broadcast Meteorology Award Winner Conveys Serious Science, Serious Fun

Bryan Busby, chief meteorologist for KMBC-TV in Kansas City, is the 2011 recipient of The AMS Award for Broadcast Meteorology. Busby received his award Wednesday evening at the 91st AMS Awards Banquet, held at the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle.
Established in 1975, the AMS award for Broadcast Meteorology recognizes a broadcast meteorologist for sustained long-term contributions to the community through the broadcast media, or for outstanding work during a specific weather event. Busby , who is the number one-rated meteorologist in the Kansas City metro area, was selected as this year’s winner for outstanding weather communication, mentorship, and sustained dedication to the public, and for service to the AMS broadcast community.
Busby has been a fixture on TV in Kansas City for 26 years. The Front Page caught up with him to learn about how he connects to the community and delivers weather information and forecasts that viewers can easily understand and use. “Not everyone goes through dynamic meteorology, therefore the only way to relate to them is to give them an analogy or another term that they can relate to, and hopefully through that there’s some tacit education—they don’t know that they’re learning while just listening. That’s the key.”
During the interview, which you can view below, he relays tales of the fun the station has with him on-air each Ground Hog’s Day, as well as a touching moment where he tells about visiting a nursing home and talking with an elderly viewer who is a big fan: “I said, it must get lonely, since she outlived her husband, and all the grandkids moved away and all the kids moved away. And she said, ‘No, no. My friends visit me every day … you’re one of them.’ And it just hit me like a ton of bricks.” He says for someone to take away something meaningful from the very brief time he’s on and then feel comfortable enough to say something like that to him “still just blows me away.”

Remembering His Past, Diversity Award Winner Creates Opportunity for Others

J. Marshall Shepherd, professor of atmospheric sciences and geography at the University of Georgia, is the 2011 recipient of The Charles E. Anderson Award. The AMS is honoring Dr. Shepherd for his outstanding and sustained contributions in promoting diversity in the atmospheric sciences through educational and outreach activities for students and scientists in multiple institutions.
The Front Page caught up with Shepherd to learn about some of his accomplishments as well as the institutions he partners with in building diversity. In the interview, which you can watch below, Shepherd also reveals his philosophy for taking on this challenge. He says that although his parents were educators, he remembers how it was growing up in a single-parent home that was far from traditional. The experience helped him shape his beliefs: “I know that there are others out there with similar backgrounds and I think it’s important to kind of convey the philosophy that, regardless of what your background and your circumstances are, if you set goals, you work hard, and maintain a certain value, philosophy, and morals, then I think you can go as far as you want to go.”

Shepherd will receive The Charles E. Anderson Award, which is in the form of an inscribed wooden book, Wednesday evening at the the AMS Awards Banquet (Washington State Convention Center halls 6A-B-C-D).

Jule G. Charney Award Winner Honored for Advancing Frontier in Mountain Meteorology

Ronald B. Smith, Damon Wells Professor of Geology and Geophysics at Yale University, is the 2011 recipient of the Jule G. Charney Award. The award is in the form of a medallion. The Jule G. Charney Award is granted to individuals in recognition of highly significant research or development achievement in the atmospheric or hydrologic sciences. The AMS is honoring Dr. Smith for his fundamental contributions to our understanding of the influence of mountains on the atmosphere through both theoretical advances and insightful observations.
The Front Page spoke with Smith to learn more about him and his award-winning research. In the interview, which you can view below, he says that while he has been able to answer “maybe a third of the outstanding questions” about mountain meteorology in his career, recent graduates interested in this field of research will find many more that they can take on to advance the science.

Smith will receive The Jule G. Charney Award at Wednesday evening’s Awards Banquet (Washington State Convention Center halls 6A-B-C-D).

NCAR Scientist to Receive Rossby Research Medal and AMS Service Award

Joe Klemp, senior scientist with NCAR, is the 2011 recipient of meteorology’s most prestigious award: The Carl-Gustaf Rossby Research Medal. Additionally, Dr. Klemp is this year’s recipient of The Charles Franklin Brooks Award for outstanding contributions to advance AMS publications and education. He is an active member of the AMS Publications Commission, having served in the past as its commissioner.
The AMS awards the Rossby Research Medal to individuals on the basis of outstanding contributions to the understanding of the structure or behavior of the atmosphere. Klemp is being honored for illuminating the dynamics of mountain waves and thunderstorms, and for his contributions to improvements in numerical techniques and community models.
The Front Page recently sat down with Klemp to learn more about him and his career-spanning research. In the interview, which you can view below, he explains how the offer of a post-doctoral research position at NCAR “really changed the whole direction of my career.”

Klemp will receive his medal and service award at the AMS Awards Banquet Wednesday at 7 p.m. in the Washington State Convention Center, Hall 6A-B-C-D.