EF-5’s: Comparing May 3rd, 1999 to May 22nd, 2011

Weather might be considered one of the last frontiers of sorts for STEMs to consider. Unpredictable in many areas, there is an interest in harnessing the power Nature provides to protect lives and property.

EF-5 tornados ripped through the Oklahoma City metro and Joplin, Missouri, on May 3rd and May 22nd, respectively. I thought it interesting to ponder the similarities and differences in these two storms twelve years apart.

Oklahoma is an area not known for basements in housing and so I thought our chances of survival of a tornado of any magnitude would be nil and none compared to a town like Joplin for which there is almost a basement in every home. The metro towns of Moore and Del City took the brunt of the May 3rd tornado and had a larger population than Joplin. Yet less than fifty people lost their lives. The toll is still being tallied in Joplin and, as of this post, is over one hundred thirty lost souls.

So what’s the difference?

May 3rd fell on a Monday afternoon that year, around 5:30 PM. Most folks were at work, heading home from work, or eating out. The tornado ripped through neighborhoods and subdivisions were quickly turned into debris fields.  Less than one hundred businesses were lost that day in Oklahoma and Cleveland counties.

Sunday afternoon, May 22nd, Joplin was struck around 5:30 PM. People were home, or church, or eating out. This tornado also tore out a residential area and also struck a business district. Over three hundred businesses were lost.

I don’t know if the flatness of the Oklahoma plain made a difference, Moore and Del City had advanced warning from the weather service of the impending storm. Joplin has hilly, tree-covered terrain. It’s been reported that the city had twenty minutes warning but that the mere size of the rain-wrapped tornado with its whirling winds overpowered the sirens.

Why were so many more lives lost in Joplin?

I hadn’t realized the lack of coverage a basement provides. I lived in Kansas for a time and I had a basement. I thought I would be protected in case of a tornado. The homes in Joplin were ripped apart and the winds took with it the flooring that served as the ceiling for the basement, exposing residents cowering in closets. Some were covered with debris, others pulled out by the suction of the tornado. Some survived the impact, others died.

Other considerations: the communities of Moore and Del City do not employ large numbers of people. Most everyone there works in another area of the city. Unemployment was not a consideration for most and the reconstruction period employed great numbers of craftsmen.

For Joplin, businesses, such as the one thousand-employee St. John’s hospital, are temporarily down or in some instances gone forever. The hospital suffered structural damage that requires the building to be leveled and rebuilt. The unemployment impact of a community that employs its own will be huge.

What is the solution?

Meteorologists are studying the science of the tornado and are getting better at predicting conditions ripe for the formation of tornados. The unpredictability of where a tornado is formed and the path that it takes makes the danger ever present.

Concrete storm cellars built below ground level still provide the best protection. The concrete holds the cellar down and protects the residents from flying debris. The problem is that these structures are expensive for a lot of budgets. Is requiring every home to have one of these the key? Absolutely not. Families struggle to make ends meet every day. They simply can’t drop everything and install this shelter.

Perhaps a better idea is installation of community shelters to house the residents in zones. Maybe a small tax to pay for the city or county to build these shelters would be better absorbed by the residents. Incorporating a community shelter in the construction of new schools and other buildings would pay benefits as well.

I also believe manufacturers of equipment need to include tornado-force winds in their designs. Several people in Joplin perished at a local restaurant. They had taken shelter in the cooler, but it too was ripped apart by the monster storm.

Why not consider second uses for the equipment? If it’s big enough to house a person or two, why not realize that at some point, some of these items will provide a safe haven as a secondary use? Coolers are designed with a mechanism to open the door from its interior, so why not go a step further?

How will Joplin move forward?

Twelve years after the 1999 tornado, the scars of that storm in the Moore and Del City areas are distant memories. Joplin will move forward.

Rebuild. Remember the losses. Plan for future events. Don’t forget.

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About stemzandroses

I'm an engineer and writer with a built-in need to share my nearly 40 years of experience working in a male-dominated field with the rest of the world.
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2 Responses to EF-5’s: Comparing May 3rd, 1999 to May 22nd, 2011

  1. Kim says:

    Good post. I wrote a post on my old blog, comparing our experience evacuating Alabama after our EF5 April 27th with evacuating Houston before Hurricane Rita. That post is here:

    http://apollosdtr.livejournal.com/72402.html

    And also has a little information on emergency preparedness. I plan to write more about that on my new blog (linked above).

  2. Great observations, Kim! A friend of mine and her family crawled along the Houston freeways with you as Hurricane Rita approached. We’ve got to have better plans, both on a government level and personal level for these disasters. Unfortunately, most, including me, don’t think too far ahead. I think it’s called the ‘it won’t happen to me’ syndrome!

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