May 19, 2012

Trembling from above – first-hand tornado wrath

Posted by Austin Elliott

This past weekend The New Yorker‘s new “Weekend Reading” feature directed me to a fascinating disaster survival narrative that was so good I figure I can take a little departure from solid Earth phenomena to point you all to the enthralling account… and the first-hand videos that accompany it.

The path of the May 22, 2011 EF-5 tornado that tore through Joplin, Missouri. The tornado scored a direct strike on the city’s hospital and high school, and ravaged neighborhoods in between. The New York Times has an interactive feature with before-and-after imagery:

The disaster in question was an EF-5 tornado that scored a direct hit on the modest southwest Missouri town of Joplin on May 22, 2011. In one of those extremely rare and extremely unlucky coincidences, the massive tornado formed right on the western outskirts of town and plowed its 3/4-mile-wide way through the heart of the 175,000-person city, lightening up and lifting off only once it reached the eastern edge of town. The path of the twister could scarcely have been worse: the strongest winds were sustained for a 6-mile path that coincided nearly exactly with the extent of the city, and its trajectory took it directly across the hospital, the high school, a middle school, several large retail complexes, and countless residential neighborhoods, all with wind speeds approaching or exceeding 200 mph.

Power went out throughout the city early in the event, as increasingly frantic newscasters on TV and radio tried to supplement the city’s 3-minute-long siren warnings to convey the dire danger of this particular storm. Naturally, many residents, having been through big midwestern storms before, did not expect what was to come. In the videos that exist of the event (there are surprisingly many), most people do not take shelter until the monstrous tornado is directly upon them, revealing some level of optimism–or at least disbelief–at what was unfolding.

The eye-witness accounts of the tornado are gut-wrenching. In one particularly remarkable video, a group of strangers has gathered in a convenience store on the eastern edge of town. They’re all there for different reasons, although they’ve been driven inside to take shelter from the storm. As they gradually realize the gravity of the situation, they have no clue that this huge looming tornado has already done most of its damage to their southwest, literally ripping their city to shreds. They also don’t–and couldn’t possibly–know what is about to hit them. It is their stories that are compiled in the captivating article in–of all places–Esquire. The article is so well written that you’ll think you’re among the survivors, huddling together and fearing for your life. It also links to that infamous gas station video, which is fairly emotionally strenuous. I’ve never watched anything so tense; Hollywood eat your heart out.

These links should take you through the event, starting with the article:

“Heavenly Father!” “I love you all!” “I love everyone!” “Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!” “I love all of you!”

And here–hold on to your seats–is the video:


The videographer who captured that emotionally draining scene went back the next day to revisit the site that brought them all together in what they thought was their moment of death. Here’s what the place looked like:


Because the destruction is entirely wrought in the deep dark of the tornado, a different video may illuminate the unbelievable winds that defined it:

Joplin tornado recorded by home security camera (youtube)

There are a few additional home videos of the tornado tearing through the neighborhoods, and although the videographers survive in safe interior rooms or basements, these intense clips may be difficult to watch, especially considering the immense loss these people faced upon emerging from their shelters:

Here a family hides as the approaching roar (“That sounds like a train. Is that the tornado??”) and pitch black of the tornado itself descend upon their house. Definitely grab your headphones/good speakers for this one.

Here’s another family at home… in this one the people’s terror is pretty vicariously horrifying:

In both of those, the sound of the tornado–that concentrated zone of 200-mph winds tearing its way toward the camera–is quite remarkable.

Then there’s a group of tornado chase tourists who get more than they bargained for. Their panic is evident as they realize the gravity of the situation… and ultimately they can hardly outrun it.

I encourage you to learn more about the humbling event itself, at NOAA’s info page about it:

…and to keep this experience in mind when the sirens go off in your midwestern town. In the case of tornadoes, we have the technology for advance warning… don’t squander it, and don’t take it for granted!