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Deadly tornado hits Missouri
May 23, 2011 6:34 AM   Subscribe

Joplin, Missouri was hit by a tornado on Sunday evening, leaving at least 89 people dead and an estimated 2,000 buildings destroyed, as much as 30 percent of the town.
posted by crackingdes (218 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
Holy fuck.
posted by dunkadunc at 6:36 AM on May 23, 2011


Whoa, I used to live just a few miles from there. Not as familiar with as with Springfield (same distance in the other direction), but still.
posted by DU at 6:38 AM on May 23, 2011


Tornadoes are evil monsters.
posted by bwg at 6:39 AM on May 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


Completely awful. A woman I knew from DISBoards and her husband were killed in the tornado last night. They just got back from their 15th Anniversary vacation to Disney World the night before. She was training for her first half marathon in January.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 6:39 AM on May 23, 2011 [6 favorites]


From what I've been hearing (glancing over the coverage on the opposite side of the state), it sounds like the hospital in Joplin got hit without much warning.

When I talk to friends outside of the midwest about tornadoes, I'm always doing a lot of "oh, they're not that bad" so they don't freak out about every thunderstorm or watch that we get. Sometimes they are that bad.

.
posted by dismas at 6:40 AM on May 23, 2011


Joplin is located in one of the worst parts of Tornado Alley.

.
posted by Faint of Butt at 6:42 AM on May 23, 2011


Fuck. That sucks. And .
posted by symbioid at 6:43 AM on May 23, 2011


Wow, I was reading the local storm reports out of Tulsa before going to bed last night and found that a trailer park was obliterated not far from here. I did not, sadly, look at Springfield's reports.

I've never been a fan of Joplin, aside from Missouri's lax liquor laws and their pretty decent downtown area, but my thoughts are still with the people there.

It looks to be an interesting weather pattern for the next couple of days, if by interesting you mean "good chances of tornadoes". Oh, and they're getting whacked by another garden variety severe storm just as I type this. That's certainly not going to make anything better.
posted by wierdo at 6:45 AM on May 23, 2011


it sounds like the hospital in Joplin got hit without much warning

Yeah, I read on CNN that X-rays were found 70 miles away. We were talking about that at work earlier and one of the surgery residents told us about a family friend whose construction company in Ringgold Ga took a direct hit from the tornado there. Among other things it snapped off a large bill board advertising his business. 2 days later he got a call from someone who said the billboard was lying undamaged in his pasture-in Knoxville, Tenessee, 150 miles away. Tornadoes are truly awe-inspiring engines of destruction.
posted by TedW at 6:47 AM on May 23, 2011 [12 favorites]


Those poor people -- my heart goes out to them. It puts all my stupid first-world complaints to real shame.
posted by theredpen at 6:50 AM on May 23, 2011


Red Cross Donations
posted by Legomancer at 6:58 AM on May 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


.
posted by jtron at 7:03 AM on May 23, 2011


My half-brother lives in Carterville, right outside of Joplin, and works at a Pizza Hut – not sure if it’s the South Main or the South Range Line store. His phone is going straight to voice mail, no answer at either Pizza Hut. Anyone know if Carterville or either of the Joplin Pizza Huts was hit? I’m in the UK and not quite sure what to do now, I don’t know his specific address and the phone number for his former foster parents is disconnected.
posted by Wroksie at 7:04 AM on May 23, 2011


.

I grew up in various parts of tornado alley, and I can't remember a death count this high ever before. It's really quite a shock.

Wroksie, I haven't heard about them, but have you gotten in touch with Jasper County Sheriff's office to let them know you're looking for him? I would do so soon; people in the area really value family and would help you as much as possible.
posted by bibliophibianj at 7:08 AM on May 23, 2011


Wroskie, I hope your brother is safe and well. The number to call to find loved ones is 417-659-5464, according to this article.
posted by amyms at 7:09 AM on May 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Every Midwestern kid's nightmare. EIGHTY-NINE people in one town. Jesus. Did this come so fast that there were no warnings? None of the stories I've read so far mention why so many people died. Maybe they just don't know yet.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 7:10 AM on May 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


one of the articles i read said they had 20 minutes but the storm was so loud people may not have heard the sirens
posted by pyramid termite at 7:12 AM on May 23, 2011


And to make things even worse, a severe thunderstorm is rolling through Joplin as we speak. On the other side of the state, Lambert St. Louis International is still covered in plywood from the St. Louis tornado.

North Minneapolis was hit too.

Add in Tuscaloosa and Birmigham, AL -- and the lower Mississippi Flood.

Just staggering.
posted by eriko at 7:13 AM on May 23, 2011


First-person video of Joplin MO tornado 5/22/11
posted by lemuring at 7:13 AM on May 23, 2011 [16 favorites]


None of the stories I've read so far mention why so many people died.

Just spitballing, but the local hospital was hit really hard. I would guess there just wasn't time to get bedridden people to safety before the building was struck.

The tornado (and at least one of the Minnesota funnel clouds) was rain-wrapped, meaning that it appeared to the naked eye as simply a massive rainstorm, with the funnel cloud hidden inside. Even trained spotters can have trouble recognizing a rain-wrapped tornado.
posted by padraigin at 7:16 AM on May 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


Thanks everyone, my brother called my grandparents from a neigbors house (he was out of credit) and he's fine.
posted by Wroksie at 7:16 AM on May 23, 2011 [24 favorites]


Did this come so fast that there were no warnings?

Dark, lots of rain, and it formed quickly and very close to the town, so neither spotters nor the NEXRAD network had a real chance to get a warning out.
posted by eriko at 7:17 AM on May 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


"Every Midwestern kid's nightmare. EIGHTY-NINE people in one town. Jesus. Did this come so fast that there were no warnings? None of the stories I've read so far mention why so many people died. Maybe they just don't know yet."

Landed on the hospital with virtually no warning. I also ready it took out two firestations, limiting emergency response, and hit the high school (no idea if it was occupied or not).

I'm in Illinois, and we had reports of softball-sized hail about 15 miles away, from the same system. I personally squeezed between two storm cells -- we didn't even get much rain -- but 10 miles north of me my friends were huddled in basements for fairly long stretches of like half an hour. It was a pretty fast-changing system -- our sky was fairly clear, the clouds were not even that low and it wasn't raining and we were still getting filtered sunlight, and then suddenly the tornado sirens were all going off. And then 20 minutes later they cancelled the watch and warning completely. Lots of very fast changes in the system, not much warning. One of the handful of times the sirens have been my first warning that the weather is turning tornadoey, rather than the clouds or the forecast.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:19 AM on May 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


*ready = read, sorry
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:19 AM on May 23, 2011


.

This is awful.
posted by bayani at 7:19 AM on May 23, 2011


  • Person chases Joplin Tornado

  • Aftermath 1

  • Aftermath 2

  • Aftermath 3

  • posted by lemuring at 7:20 AM on May 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


    Here's some chopper footage of the damage.

    Damn.
    posted by Shadan7 at 7:25 AM on May 23, 2011


    lemuring: the video you link to is amazing. As I listened, I kept turning the volume lower and lower. It was just too intense to hear.
    posted by SLC Mom at 7:27 AM on May 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


    Absolutely horrible. With this group of tornadoes (Minneapolis was also hit by a tornado this weekend, as was La Crosse, WI) and the ones that hit the South at the end of aperil, this will have to go down as one of the worst tornado years in US history, if not the worst.
    posted by blucevalo at 7:31 AM on May 23, 2011


    Seems people in this part of the world are going to have to start taking these things seriously. The "we have them all the time" attitude doesn't make sense when you actually do start having them all the time.
    posted by three blind mice at 7:33 AM on May 23, 2011


    eriko wrote: "Dark, lots of rain, and it formed quickly and very close to the town, so neither spotters nor the NEXRAD network had a real chance to get a warning out."

    That's odd, a news article I read quoted a Joplin EM official who stated that there was at least 20 minutes of warning.
    posted by wierdo at 7:33 AM on May 23, 2011


    EIGHTY-NINE people in one town. Jesus. Did this come so fast that there were no warnings? None of the stories I've read so far mention why so many people died.
    I guess I don't find it so surprising. I live on the third floor of a building with no basement. My tornado safe room is my bathroom. I think that would be sufficient if there were a normal-sized tornado, but if my building gets flattened, I'm a goner. (And probably everyone in the building is, too.) I live next door to a trailer park, and nobody there has a safe place to go. If we were unlucky enough to get hit by one of these massive, half-mile-wide tornadoes, a whole lot of people would die. And it may be that more tornadoes like that hit populated areas these days, because people are moving out into areas that used to be farmland. Any given tornado is more likely to hit populated places.
    posted by craichead at 7:34 AM on May 23, 2011


    Fucking hell. 'The tornado was too loud to hear the sirens' is stuff of nightmares.
    posted by Space Kitty at 7:35 AM on May 23, 2011


    Have quite a large collection of in-laws in and around Joplin. No one hurt (as far as we know so far), but at least one of their homes was completely destroyed. They're still tracking folks down.
    posted by jquinby at 7:36 AM on May 23, 2011


    Reddit has a bunch of links and photos.

    Possible strike area on twitpic
    posted by zerobyproxy at 7:39 AM on May 23, 2011


    The Salvation Army is sending mobile kitchens to feed residents and responders in both KS and MO. Donations can be made here.
    posted by dejah420 at 7:40 AM on May 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


    Can buildings be constructed to withstand a tornado, and still remain largely intact?

    Because, if so, that needs to be written into the building codes in "Tornado Alley" ASAP.
    posted by schmod at 7:42 AM on May 23, 2011


    And just FWIW, most of the damage I saw in the chopper video was EF-3 or less (it looked like there might have been one small vortex that caused EF-4 or EF-5 damage), so I'm still puzzled as to why 89 people died, unless the 20 minute warning claim was untrue. An EF-3 is perfectly survivable in an interior room of most structures.

    It still looks bad, given that most of the exterior of the structure will be smashed to bits and the roof will be missing, but it's not total destruction down to the slab.

    schmod, yes safe rooms can be built that will withstand any but the most violent tornado, although again, tornadoes strong enough to utterly destroy a house such that there is zero chance of survival for the occupants are very, very rare. Most people die from not seeking shelter, not inadequate shelter.
    posted by wierdo at 7:47 AM on May 23, 2011


    That's odd, a news article I read quoted a Joplin EM official who stated that there was at least 20 minutes of warning.

    20 minutes is not a lot of warning -- it takes time to get the word out, and the EM officials tend to get the warning almost instantly, but it takes time for EAS to pass the message down to the local broadcasters and for them to get it out, to get the sirens going. Sirens aren't nearly as useful for storms as they are for bombers -- it's loud in a storm already, and houses have better insulation, which blocks sound as well.

    This is why NWS wants everyone to have a SAME encoded weather alert radio -- it's one of the first things to get the message, and it doesn't depend on you listening to radio or watching TV to get the alert.

    Most EMs assume that less than 10 minutes is no warning at all, and less than 20 minutes is barely any. It's just a hard problem, and it keeps changing scope.
    posted by eriko at 7:47 AM on May 23, 2011 [5 favorites]


    None of the stories I've read so far mention why so many people died.

    The first link mentions a number of bodies found along the city's "restaurant row," and says a local nursing home took a direct hit. Restaurant row at Sunday dinner time, a hospital and a nursing home might be enough explanation for the high death toll.
    posted by mediareport at 7:48 AM on May 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


    Can buildings be constructed to withstand a tornado, and still remain largely intact?

    Maybe if they're entirely underground. Otherwise, I don't think there's a whole lot to be done. There was a brisk business in underground shelters here after the Good Friday tornado a few years back. That, plus a good SAME weather radio and a pair of peeled eyes watching the sky are probably your best bet. My worst fear, frankly, is of one developing at night, when I can't see it coming.
    posted by jquinby at 7:49 AM on May 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


    Possible strike area on twitpic

    needs to shift south and extend west -- the hospital that was hit is at 26th and McClelland/Maiden
    posted by eriko at 7:50 AM on May 23, 2011


    There's always a tornado *watch* during a) tornado-y weather b) during tornado season. But there's only a tornado *warning* if one is actually spotted.
    posted by DU at 7:50 AM on May 23, 2011


    Joplin is my hometown (was born there, didn't live there long, but have family there still and go back all the time). The tornado missed my grandma's house by a few blocks and destroyed everything on the opposite side of the street from my dad's house, but they've both come out of this pretty much fine - unbelievably lucky. When my sister called me last night to see if I'd heard from them, I figured she was worrying about nothing (tornadoes are pretty common in the area and she is a worrier), and I didn't even turn on the tv for a couple hours. When I finally did, I was expecting to see familiar places looking a bit beat up, but instead the city is pretty much unrecognizable. For folks watching the news, if you see the footage of the WalMart, Academy Sports, etc. that's all along Range Line, the biggest, busiest street in town where pretty much everything is.

    Whatever you think of Salvation Army as an organization, the local one is (in my experience) really good people and will no doubt be doing a lot of vital work here, if you're looking for somewhere to give.
    posted by naoko at 7:52 AM on May 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


    Horrifying.

    My only experience with Tornado alley was when I was driving cross country. I stayed in a motel one night in Oklahoma and the Sirens went off. I had to ask at the front desk what that meant. If I remember correctly the clerk just told me to go back to my room and stay off the streets.
    posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 7:54 AM on May 23, 2011


    Okay, kids. St. Louis, MO; Minneapolis, MN; Birmingham, AL. All cities with metro area populations over a million, the first two are close to three million, and all hit by tornadoes this year.

    Can we stop with the idea that tornados don't hit cities?
    posted by eriko at 7:54 AM on May 23, 2011 [11 favorites]


    schmod: "Can buildings be constructed to withstand a tornado, and still remain largely intact? Because, if so, that needs to be written into the building codes in "Tornado Alley" ASAP"

    IANAArchitect, but I think the only absolutely tornado proof structure is one which is built underground. The big issue with tornadoes is not only the wind speed, but the things which the wind is carrying, like cars, trees, cows... And a lot of sand and water, abrasives moving at 700mph, or whatever insane speed the tornado has.

    A lot of houses in our area, which has never seen a big tornado, thank FSM, have "tornado rooms", which are basically just a reinforced room/closet in the middle of the house, where you're supposed to go if the sirens go off. The water table is too weird, and the limestone too difficult for there to be a lot of underground shelters here, but in big tornado country; IA, KS, MO, OK, etc., underground shelters used to be pretty common in rural areas. I don't know if people are building them in residential areas though.
    posted by dejah420 at 7:54 AM on May 23, 2011


    We're in SE Wisconsin, but we were huddled around the weather radio last night and our power went out. We'd corralled the dogs and cats into one room and got the cat carriers ready, in case we had to all go to the basement. Nothing really happened; the lightning was fierce but the rain and wind weren't out of the ordinary. The power went on and we watched a movie and fell asleep. But I had nightmares last night - not of dying, but of losing everything. What do you do? Insurance doesn't cover tornadoes, right? What if your place of employment is gone and you can't work? I guess you're completely dependent on the Red Cross and FEMA for awhile? I don't know, I'm not really attached to my stuff, and I'd be happy to be alive, but damn, that must be psychologically crushing.
    posted by desjardins at 7:55 AM on May 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


    eriko wrote: "20 minutes is not a lot of warning -- it takes time to get the word out, and the EM officials tend to get the warning almost instantly, but it takes time for EAS to pass the message down to the local broadcasters and for them to get it out, to get the sirens going."

    EM officials are the ones that set off the sirens. Here it takes about 60 seconds to get them going. 20 minutes is a long lead time for a tornado warning. It's above average, actually.

    </neckbeard>
    posted by wierdo at 7:57 AM on May 23, 2011


    EIGHTY-NINE people in one town. Jesus. Did this come so fast that there were no warnings? None of the stories I've read so far mention why so many people died.

    And Joplin is somewhat densely populated ... about 50,000 people in the city itself, maybe 100,000 more in the surrounding metro area. It's not a huge metropolis, but not a small town either. The tornado just smacked it right in the center -- including a commercial strip with lots of restaurants and stores.

    .
    posted by lisa g at 7:57 AM on May 23, 2011


    I noticed tornado shelters in the Denver airport, where I was yesterday to begin my return trip home to DC. Guess I flew over Missouri around 2 pm or so. It was certainly stormy, but it was too early to have encountered this one.
    posted by MrMoonPie at 7:59 AM on May 23, 2011


    How do we go about determining whether these sorts of things are becoming more frequent, as opposed to just occurring in a manner that makes us *feel* they are becoming more frequent?

    Because I sure as hell think they are becoming more frequent and would very much like to be contradicted.
    posted by jefficator at 8:00 AM on May 23, 2011


    EM officials are the ones that set off the sirens. Here it takes about 60 seconds to get them going. 20 minutes is a long lead time for a tornado warning. It's above average, actually.

    Just curious, where are you getting the info that 20 minutes warning is "above average"? I ask because I've lived through tons of tornado warnings, seen at least two up close and huddled as one passed a couple of miles away earlier this year, and 20 minutes would be *very* short warning in my experience.
    posted by mediareport at 8:01 AM on May 23, 2011


    Tornado proof buildings? Nope. However, as stated above, if they are underground or bermed, have a better chance. Met a family that survived the tornado in Tuscaloosa because they had bermed an old school bus into a hillside. They had constructed it 20 years ago. Never really needed it until April 27th. Saved 40 people in their "bus berm".
    posted by zerobyproxy at 8:03 AM on May 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


    I know very little about tornadoes, so help me out here. Even if you had a 20 minute warning, wouldn't it be very hard to tell which direction to drive in, assuming that you could get out of town at all? And wouldn't being in a car, trying to out drive a tornado be worse than trying to find shelter in a basement?
    posted by roomthreeseventeen at 8:04 AM on May 23, 2011


    Can we stop with the idea that tornados don't hit cities?

    I grew up in Missouri, in a suburb of Kansas City, and in the '80s there certainly was the belief that tornadoes rarely hit larger cities -- they were more likely to get small towns and the outskirts of bigger towns. I recall going down to the basement for tornado watches a few times as a kid, but it never seemed that serious. Though in 2003, after I'd left, a twister hit my old suburb, just a few blocks from my old house. In the past few years, I seem to have heard more stories of tornadoes hitting larger towns and cities -- such as Minneapolis yesterday and the St. Louis airport recently. Either they're getting a bit worse or we were just lucky back then -- I'm guessing a mix of both.

    (But like jefficator, I'd love to see more hard statistics.)
    posted by lisa g at 8:06 AM on May 23, 2011


    Seems people in this part of the world are going to have to start taking these things seriously. The "we have them all the time" attitude doesn't make sense when you actually do start having them all the time.

    Well, I guess we could freak out, but that wouldn't really change much. Being nonchalant about these things doesn't mean we're not still going to shelter every time. There's no point in worrying about things you have no control over.

    But we'll scream more if it makes you happy.
    posted by chundo at 8:09 AM on May 23, 2011 [8 favorites]


    Even if you had a 20 minute warning, wouldn't it be very hard to tell which direction to drive in, assuming that you could get out of town at all?
    If you're already in a building, you shouldn't leave it when there's a tornado warning. You should go to the safest area in the building. (I was in a movie theater yesterday when we got a tornado warning, and they had us stay in the theater until there was an all-clear.) The warning is to let you know to go to your safe area, and it's to alert people who are outside to try to get to shelter.
    posted by craichead at 8:09 AM on May 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


    Can buildings be constructed to withstand a tornado, and still remain largely intact?

    Sort of. Monolithic domes have had pretty good success in tornados. Good luck convincing people to live in those though.
    posted by chundo at 8:09 AM on May 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


    Can buildings be constructed to withstand a tornado, and still remain largely intact?

    Yes. As wierdo mentioned safe rooms. Here's an essential FAQ in case any MeFites find themselves in a tornado-prone area. FEMA have actually done quite a bit of research on this topic, but it hasn't made it into state or local legislation. I'd imagine lobbyists would be up in arms if they were required to build houses to a certain standard in disaster-prone areas.

    To have a whole house withstand a hurricane/tornado depends on how much money you have to spend, though it need not be super expensive.
    posted by lemuring at 8:10 AM on May 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


    There's always a tornado *watch* during a) tornado-y weather b) during tornado season. But there's only a tornado *warning* if one is actually spotted.

    This isn't true, though. I live in northern Illinois and we were under a tornado warning last night, even though one hadn't been spotted, because apparently the storm was so strong that if there was a tornado it wouldn't be visible. Maybe that's the rain wrapped business someone mentioned above?

    God, I hate tornadoes. I have a gibbering bugfuck fear of severe weather, a remnant of growing up in a tornado-prone area where no one had basements. I couldn't tell you how many times I had to hide in the hallway underneath a mattress. Once a warning is issued, I'm worthless.
    posted by sugarfish at 8:12 AM on May 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


    roomthreeseventeen - getting in your car and driving is the worst thing you can do. If you don't have a basement, get in the sturdiest part of your house, like a bathroom or under a table. Most injuries are because of flying debris and you want to try to stay clear of that. If you ARE in a car, get out and lay in a ditch or the lowest-lying area you can find.
    posted by desjardins at 8:13 AM on May 23, 2011


    This is why NWS wants everyone to have a SAME encoded weather alert radio

    Then maybe the NWS should stop polluting the SAME channels with incessant tests that are going to lead anyone who has one to eventually disable the feature. Whose bright idea was that?
    posted by enn at 8:14 AM on May 23, 2011


    Thanks, desjardins and craichead. I'm hoping never to deal with such a horrible tragedy in NYC, but you never know, I guess.
    posted by roomthreeseventeen at 8:17 AM on May 23, 2011


    I live in northern Illinois and we were under a tornado warning last night, even though one hadn't been spotted, because apparently the storm was so strong that if there was a tornado it wouldn't be visible.

    They are issuing warnings based on observing rotation on the Doppler radars now, as opposed to waiting for confirmation from a spotter. That does means there have been warnings which resulted in no probable "grounding" (wrong technical term, I'm sure) of a tornado. From my personal observation in Northern Virginia, the "false alarm" rate of this isn't a problem, but that's just anecdata.
    posted by stevis23 at 8:18 AM on May 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


    @317: DO NOT TRY TO OUTRUN OR OUTSMART TORNADOES IN YOUR CAR. Find the nearest shelter and go there. Do not hide under a bridge (can accelerate wind and concentrate debris). If no shelter is available, they usually suggest a drainage ditch, while keeping an eye towards torrents of water draining (especially if you have small children). Even if you don't encounter the tornado while in the car, there are typically damaging winds that can down trees or light poles that can fall on your car.

    In much of the midwest, many/most commercial buildings will have some sort of tornado shelter, even if it's just the restaurant cooler or a windowless bathroom. But an awful lot of "big box" stores have a basement storage room that doubles as a shelter or whatever. (This is all information I have had to drill into my Floridian husband's head, since he is tornado-dumb.)

    You can tell the natives from the migrants in a skyscraper during a tornado because the natives all go find an interior staircase to sit in, while the migrants all go to take pictures out the terrifying, terrifying windows.

    @desjardins, I HOPE your homeowner's insurance covers tornadoes! I've known several people who've had to rebuilt (partially or completely), with the assistance of their insurance company. People may be underinsured for complete replacement of the home and its contents in the case of the tornado, but insurance typically does cover tornadoes. You should check your policy and find out for sure.

    @Everyone, another alert option, in addition to weather radios, sirens, and turning on the TV, is SMS alerts. The Weather Channel does them; personally, I like "weatherusa.net." You tell it your location and it texts you whenever there's alerts of whatever type you name. I got several alerts last night as the tornado warnings came and went, typically faster than my smartphone weather program updated its warnings, and only seconds behind the sirens. Not only could I hear the SMS alert well, but it comes with considerably more information than the siren alone. I have found this to be EXTREMELY useful on several occasions, and you don't need a smartphone for the SMS alerts.
    posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:20 AM on May 23, 2011 [20 favorites]


    Then maybe the NWS should stop polluting the SAME channels with incessant tests that are going to lead anyone who has one to eventually disable the feature. Whose bright idea was that?

    This must vary by area - ours doesn't seem to do this. I did disable some of the alarms for watches and the one for Amber Alerts (after one was issued at 2AM that had me running for the kitchen to see what the hell was going on).

    Anyway, everyone ought to have a SAME radio. Go get one if you're in a bad-weather-prone area. We gave them out as Easter gifts one year to friends who (inexplicably) didn't have them. I even programmed them. As important as a smoke detector, as far as I'm concerned.
    posted by jquinby at 8:23 AM on May 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


    Next time Gary England and Mike Morgan are in a frenzy I think i will thank my lucky stars we have them instead of cussing them under my breath for making me miss Modern Family. England even said last night right before this hit Joplin how bad it was going to be and he is a couple hundred miles from there. Events like this and the May 3rd, 1999 tornadoes here are why metrologists freak out the way they do sometimes.

    I kind of wonder if geography plays a part in not seeing them coming. Here you can see it coming for 50 miles. Joplin is not nearly as flat and there are lots more trees.
    posted by domino at 8:26 AM on May 23, 2011


    If you ARE in a car, get out and lay in a ditch or the lowest-lying area you can find.

    The National Weather Service changed its recommendation about that earlier this year, desjardins. After the Red Cross started telling folks in 2009 that staying in the car with the seatbelt buckled and your head below the level of the windows was safer than leaving for a ditch, there were apparently some discussions and now both groups say something like this:

    # If you are caught outdoors, seek shelter in a basement, shelter or sturdy building. If you cannot quickly walk to a shelter:

    * Immediately get into a vehicle, buckle your seat belt and try to drive to the closest sturdy shelter.
    * If flying debris hits your vehicle while you are driving, pull over and park.

    Now you have the following options as a last resort:

    * Stay in the car with the seat belt on. Put your head down below the windows, covering with your hands and a blanket if possible.
    * If you can safely get noticeably lower than the level of the roadway, exit your car and lie in that area, covering your head with your hands.
    * Your choice should be driven by your specific circumstances.


    So the advice now seems to be that staying in a car can be as good in some situations. That Red Cross link is interesting for noting a since-deleted blog comment from one of the 2009 committee's researchers; it said, "We found no evidence to support the NWS suggestion that people should lie in a ditch during a tornado if they cannot find solid shelter."

    But getting lower than the road does make sense, so long as you're far enough away from cars that could roll down on top of you.
    posted by mediareport at 8:26 AM on May 23, 2011 [7 favorites]


    My worst fear, frankly, is of one developing at night, when I can't see it coming.

    As I remember, that would be the Barneveld, Wisconsin tornado back in the mid-80s, which was particularly bad, and hit at some awful time like 3:00 in the morning.

    The tornado (and at least one of the Minnesota funnel clouds) was rain-wrapped, meaning that it appeared to the naked eye as simply a massive rainstorm, with the funnel cloud hidden inside. Even trained spotters can have trouble recognizing a rain-wrapped tornado.

    I should have been able to see the Minneapolis tornado from my back door, but couldn't. Definitely shielded by heavy rain. (And of course, shortly after that, was in the basement and out of line of sight anyway.) Came within about 2 miles at closest.

    One of my co-workers today talked about the eerie sight of looking up and seeing bits of debris flying way high overhead, even though she was miles away from the damage zone.
    posted by gimonca at 8:28 AM on May 23, 2011


    mediareport wrote: "Just curious, where are you getting the info that 20 minutes warning is "above average"? "

    This paper. The 30 years ago, 10 minutes was considered fantastic.

    As far as frequency is concerned, there's graph from NCDC that shows the number of strong tornadoes from 1950-2007.
    posted by wierdo at 8:29 AM on May 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


    I grew up in Springfield. When I was a teenager Joplin had a nice punk/ska scene and we used to go there for shows.
    posted by Bookhouse at 8:29 AM on May 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


    Whose bright idea was that?

    Congress. The problem is that this system, which is primarily used for weather alerts, has a "primary" use of allowing the president to address the entire nation to tell us that the world is going to end (for all intents) in 15-20 minutes when the Soviets nuked the hell out of us.

    SAME encoded radios do no good unless you actually tell the thing where you are. I've seen a number of people frustrated by such alerts, because they were getting them from a huge radius. Putting in the local SAME code fixed that.

    There is an issue, though --- SAME codes are mostly based on counties. When you live in something like Orange County, CA or Cook County, IL, that's a huge area. The fix here is to subdivided those, but they haven't.

    It's a real problem in Chicago -- a storm hitting the south end of Cook County is much further away and much less of a threat to me than a storm winding up in DuPage County, which is both closer to me and much more likely to move into the part of Cook County that I live in.

    Finally, a weather alert radio without battery backup is likely to not work at the exact time that you need it to work.

    Currently under development is the Digital Emergency Alert System and part of the feature set is a much better targeting of alerts, and more transmission sources. One being discussed is a text message sent basically to "any handset that can hear this tower", which would allow very narrow alerting.

    The testing question is hard. Do you test frequently, proving that the system works, and run into the tune-out problem. Do you test rarely, and find out that the system doesn't work when you run a tornado into a town and nobody gets any alert at all?
    posted by eriko at 8:30 AM on May 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


    I grew up west of St. Louis and I have many fond memories of my childhood in relation to tornadoes. I remember practicing tornado drills at schools. We would all huddle under our desks, or in the hallways, lined up against the interior walls in a little crouch with our hands over our heads, giggling and getting shushed over and over. At home, the power would flicker, or go out and we thought it was so much fun to traipse down to the basement by candle light, listening to a little transistor radio. Once you become a parent, these little incidents are not nearly as exciting.

    Yesterday afternoon, I was at my parent's house just west of St. Louis when the sirens went off. We were outside with my one year old daughter and one year old niece and came inside to find out what was going on. According to the weather reports, this was a very slow moving storm system. We had 30 minutes warning before it was going to hit, coming from the west and then it was going to take about an hour and a half to move about 30 miles down the road, so I imagine the storm lingered longer than normal in Joplin. Although, I honestly have no idea.

    I flew through Lambert last week, it's still boarded up. My colleagues were flying in the night of the storm that closed down the airport. Luckily they were in the air when it happened and were all just diverted to Kansas City.

    As far as yesterday is concerned, I have an employee who is from Joplin. Luckily, her family all survived, but she was pretty shaken this morning, and we sent her on her way to go see her loved ones and do whatever she needed to down there.

    I don't know if the storms are getting stronger, more frequent, or if it's just that more people have moved out to areas more commonly hit by tornadoes, but I'd guess it's a combination of these factors. I do know that myself, and my family, will be hightailing it to the basement when the sirens go off.
    posted by fyrebelley at 8:33 AM on May 23, 2011


    Can buildings be constructed to withstand a tornado, and still remain largely intact?

    Sure. But contrary to lemuring's suggestion, it is actually pretty expensive. It's a lot cheaper to build a house to survive a hurricane than it is to survive a tornado. Hurricane winds? Anything more than 120mph is off the scale. But a big tornado? Winds in excess of 300mph, i.e. just under the speed of sound. Heavy-duty shingles and adhering to building codes aren't going to enable any stick-frame house to survive that sort of punishment.

    Masonry construction obviously does a lot better--the hospital got its roof torn off but is otherwise structurally okay--but that's also a lot more expensive. And if you put windows in it, you're still in trouble, as the images of said hospital demonstrate.

    Basically, the best way to build a tornado-proof house is an underground bunker. Barring that, a featureless concrete dome, though even a box could do okay. The catch is, of course, that in addition to being way more expensive than throwing together a standard house, no one actually wants to live in either of those.

    My solution is to just move somewhere else, though that isn't necessarily any more viable than building a freaking castle.
    posted by valkyryn at 8:35 AM on May 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


    Doh. Speed of sound is 738mph. My bad.
    posted by valkyryn at 8:36 AM on May 23, 2011


    One thing that sounds like some good luck: Joplin High School (which you can see pictures of in a lot of the news outlets - completely destroyed) had its graduation late yesterday afternoon, but it was held at the local university a few miles away rather than at the high school itself - I'm guessing this saved some people who would have still been hanging around the high school otherwise. Just got off the phone with my dad - he stepped on a nail while pulling some people out of a wrecked building but is refusing to go get a tetanus shot because the hospital (the one still standing) is too busy. I still can't get over these pictures - it doesn't even look like the same town. I never realized just how flat the land is.
    posted by naoko at 8:48 AM on May 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


    This paper.

    Thanks, that was interesting. I especially like the part where they increase mean lead time from 13 to 18.5 minutes by leaving out the cases where tornadoes hit with no warning at all. :)
    posted by mediareport at 8:49 AM on May 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


    Here is a link to the Tornado History Project. Interesting tool to play around with. No hard statistics here but you can sort by date and severity, and look at all of the tornadoes from one date/storm.
    posted by sararah at 8:54 AM on May 23, 2011


    I will be donating to the Red Cross, and my heart is with everyone in Joplin. I'm also petitioning my company to make a donation. This has been a really long year already as far as disasters go.
    posted by Godspeed.You!Black.Emperor.Penguin at 8:55 AM on May 23, 2011


    The tornado (and at least one of the Minnesota funnel clouds) was rain-wrapped, meaning that it appeared to the naked eye as simply a massive rainstorm, with the funnel cloud hidden inside. Even trained spotters can have trouble recognizing a rain-wrapped tornado.

    The most terrifying (to me) tornado scene in a movie is from Twister (which is terrible, but I love it so!), when a tornado comes out of the darkness and hits a drive-in theater.
    posted by rtha at 8:57 AM on May 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


    Some more information:

    Metro Tower in Lubbock, TX is the tallest building to "survive" a direct hit by an F5 tornado, though it took five years of renovation and significant repairs. The building was actually twisted.

    Tornadoes can derail trains.

    Tornadoes can strip asphalt off road beds.

    Etc.
    posted by valkyryn at 8:59 AM on May 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


    Video: Meteorologist Mike Bettes is overcome as he reports live from Joplin, Missouri. Bettes and his crew arrived on the scene of this devastating tornado less than an hour after it hit.

    The Weather Channel meteorologists have been airing segments called "The Great Tornado Hunt" (or something like that) wherein they breathlessly chase possible tornadoes. Shit got real.

    "We were actually chasing this tornado," Bettes said. "We were in behind it in a very heavy rain and hail core. We couldn't see anything. We didn't know what was ahead of us until we rolled into town."
    posted by futz at 9:20 AM on May 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


    Having lived my entire life in Tornado Alley, I am consistently amazed at the weird patterns of destruction left by tornadoes. Houses destroyed except for one wall with a shelf full of untouched knickknacks, or an entire Wal-Mart reduced to rubble, except for the pet aisles with their bags of food neatly lined up and unbroken on the shelf.

    Our local siren system is so messed up and unreliable these days, it would be a real luxury to have a 20 minute warning as opposed to watching over the roof of the house across the street to see how green the sky is getting.
    My heart is with the people of Joplin.
    posted by Heretic at 9:22 AM on May 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


    As a resident of St. Louis, in an area that was hit hard by the Good Friday 2011 tornadoes, it's really hard for me to see this happen to Joplin. The destruction there looks worse than what happened so recently here (and what happened here was very, very bad).

    I have lived in Missouri, a tornado-prone state, for 30 years (that's my whole life actually) and from a personal perspective I can state with certainty that we have had more severe tornadoes in the Mississippi Valley region this year than we usually do.

    If you want hard stats, though (and you should), in April 2011 there were 542 confirmed tornadoes in the United States; the average for April is 135.

    The frequent severe weather in my region this year has also contributed to localized flash flooding and the devastating flooding of the Mississippi River, and our unusually high spring rainfall has delayed the planting of crops across my home state of Missouri, which will likely contribute to an increase in food prices nationwide.

    I'm no climate scientist but as a science-literate person and someone with a profound interest in nature who has lived in the same region her whole life, I'm definitely disposed to believe the increasingly unsettled weather in my region is linked to climate change.

    When I was a kid we generally had fewer bad storms in this area. And that's not just my memory talking-- it's statistical fact. Do I know for a fact that we are having more of these storms because of climate change? No. Do climate change models predict an increase in severe storms in the Midwest? Yes.

    So when I see this devastation I am filled with empathy for the people who have lost homes and loved ones (it could have been me). But I'm also angry. Angry that we as a nation are not doing more to fight climate change. If there's even a possibility that we could prevent further increase in storms like this by changing national environmental policy, we should do it and do it now. Look at those people crawling out of the rubble that used to be their homes. Is this a price we are willing to pay for high corporate profits and cheap energy?

    By the way, I would say that 20 minutes is a decent amount of warning for a tornado, especially considering that the region was already under a tornado watch. But 20 minutes is not necessarily long enough to get home or to a shelter if you are out shopping or eating, and this was a sunny spring Sunday in Missouri until the storms came through, and we get tornado watches in Missouri all the time; if you stopped your life every time possible severe weather was predicted, you wouldn't get much done. I imagine that downtown Joplin stores and restaurants were packed.

    20 minutes is also definitely not long enough to evacuate a hospital. I imagine there were many people there who knew what they ought to be doing-- heading to a basement or safe room-- but had no safe place to go in the time that they had.
    posted by BlueJae at 9:22 AM on May 23, 2011 [25 favorites]


    I lived there when I was a kid and experienced the 1973 tornado first hand. I'm curious as to why the death count is so high. People in the area know what to do, and I read that they had 20 minutes warning. My old house was spared, as it was south of 32nd Street, but I'm guessing my elementary school, Irving, got hit. I read a preliminary report estimating that it was an F4, pictures I have seen definitely look F3 (158-206 mph winds). The only thing I can think of as to why there is such a high death toll is a lack of basements in that area of town? There's not much soil before you hit bedrock. My thoughts go out to the people of Joplin.
    posted by davismbagpiper at 9:31 AM on May 23, 2011


    As far as frequency is concerned, there's graph from NCDC that shows the number of strong tornadoes from 1950-2007.

    Whoa. This brought back so many memories of living on a farm in Western Ohio in 1973-1974 and always being pulled into the basement by my NYC-raised parents when the wind blew a bit harder than normal. We were living there, a bit north of Dayton, during the Super Outbreak that flattened Xenia.

    When the F5 hit Plainfield, Illinois, I was working on the 20th Floor of this building...a glass office tower taller than anything else around it in the middle of the western suburbs, the tallest building in Illinois outside of Chicago City Limits. I was part of the Emergency Evacuation team trying to convince our Facilities Manager to make an announcement to evacuate to the stairwell. She waited and waited and waited, hemming and hawing, while I stood at the window and watched power transformers blow in a flash, one after the other. Finally, we just started going office to office, asking people to get in the stairwell, even though she hadn't triggered an announcement. I remember standing in the door of the office of one of our sales reps. He was talking on the phone and waving me away. Behind him, the windows were bowing and the blinds were making this weird sine wave-y ripple effect. Beyond the window to the West, the sky was ominous and awful. When I finally got him to at least look around, he stood up from his desk and moved towards the door, talking on the phone the whole time. The phone cord stretched and pulled the phone off of the desk. When he reached the door (and me) he let the receiver go and fled for the stairs. The facilities manager finally made the announcement. Many people were already in the stairwell. No one hurt at the building that day, but the storm blew the revolving doors right out of the lobby.

    Tornadoes. No thank you.
    posted by jeanmari at 9:32 AM on May 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


    Okay...So, the solution seems to be to only permit steel/masonry construction, and to require "safe" rooms at the centers of those buildings for the inevitable window blowouts.

    Buildings that cannot be quickly evacuated (ie. hospitals) need metal shutters that can be quickly rolled over the windows.

    Can't meet those codes? Tough. Build someplace else.

    Can you imagine how much worse the Japanese earthquakes would have been if they'd taken the American approach to building codes and disaster preparedness? This is a solvable problem, and the fact that scores of people die each time a tornado or hurricane hits a trailer park is a failure of our society. We have the technology and the money.
    posted by schmod at 9:38 AM on May 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


    I'm guessing my elementary school, Irving, got hit.

    Irving is pretty much destroyed, I'm sorry to say - photo here. I went to Eastmoreland, which hasn't been mentioned in the news so I guess it's made it ok, but it's so close to Range Line that that surprises me a bit. Hard to tell what's going on, though.
    posted by naoko at 9:40 AM on May 23, 2011


    We found no evidence to support the NWS suggestion that people should lie in a ditch during a tornado if they cannot find solid shelter.

    I'm glad they're finally, finally going on the record against this asinine suggestion that has permeated the consciousness and collective "knowledge" of smug Mid-Westerners for years (smug because it's one of those logic-defying canards that Mid-Westerners will quickly pull from their hats to challenge non-Tornado Alley folks).

    Tornado proof buildings? Nope.

    Once again, a mid-western canard that completely misses the point. There may not be any inexpensive ways of building completely 100% tornado-proof buildings, sure, but that doesn't mean you throw in the towel and build all your houses with stick-framed construction (99.9% of all the homes). It should be illegal to build a housing structure with a corrugated metal roof in a tornado-prone area, but good luck getting a law like that passed in small-gubment land.

    If you want to see hundreds of miles of criminally cheap, disposable housing, take a drive through the midwest.
    posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:41 AM on May 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


    Doppler radar could see the "debris ball" rising 18,000 feet above Joplin.
    posted by stbalbach at 9:44 AM on May 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


    The Tornado History Project stats are really interesting. So since 1950, there have been 52 F5 tornadoes, and those 52 tornadoes killed a total of 1034 people. There have been 519 F4s, and they killed a total of 2105 people. The 2219 F3s killed a total of 1167 people; 8397 F2s killed a total of 522; over 17000 F1s killed a total of 210 people, and over 23000 F0s killed 20 people.

    So the moral of this story seems to be that you're kind of screwed if you get in the path of an F5. Luckily, that's really unlikely to happen.

    Any word on where the Joplin tornado stood on the Fujita scale? If it was an F3, it'll be the deadliest F3 in American history by quite a bit. (The worst to date this one, which killed 25 people in Florida in 1998.)
    posted by craichead at 9:44 AM on May 23, 2011


    I just looked at the radars. The (SGF) Springfield loop is show a long training storm that's dumping rain over the entire area, it's now all under a flash flood warning. Meanwhile, the leading edge of the storm, according to the  (LSX) St. Louis loop is making a bee-line for the St. Louis metro area, showing a classic bow echo and very high returns. It's 1143CDT now, looks like it'll hit downtown St. Louis about 1245CDT.

    Not a good day for Missouri. Not good at all.
    posted by eriko at 9:45 AM on May 23, 2011


    We found no evidence to support the NWS suggestion that people should lie in a ditch during a tornado if they cannot find solid shelter.

    But this assumes that you can easily get to your car, correct? We camp at a festival near the Ohio/PA border every year - two or three thousand tents, a half mile hike to the cars, no solid buildings anywhere. Seems like the ditch is our best option vs. five or six thousand people all trying to make a run to the parking lot.... (Of course, if we sustain a direct hit we're all keenly aware that we're pretty much doomed in any case....)
    posted by anastasiav at 9:47 AM on May 23, 2011


    It makes sense that a ditch would be your best bet in that case. I think what they were refuting was the argument that you should get out of your car and get in a ditch if there's a tornado coming while you're driving, which is what I've been told by various Midwesterners since I've moved here. It sounds like you're better off staying in your car unless you have no chance of driving to shelter and there happens to be a convenient ditch nearby.
    posted by craichead at 9:54 AM on May 23, 2011


    It looks like Hiroshima. Very scary, very sad.
    posted by caddis at 9:55 AM on May 23, 2011


    I'm glad they're finally, finally going on the record against this asinine suggestion that has permeated the consciousness and collective "knowledge" of smug Mid-Westerners for years

    The National Weather Service isn't on record against getting into a ditch; they still actively recommend it:

    If you can safely get noticeably lower than the level of the roadway, exit your car and lie in that area, covering your head with your hands.

    They've just added that staying in the car, buckled up and bent lower than the windows, with a blanket over your head, is a valid alternative, with the choice up to the person in the storm. The Red Cross does clearly rank the ditch as the last possible resort [pdf] if you can't get to a car, so I guess that's still a significant difference between the two.
    posted by mediareport at 9:56 AM on May 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


    Goodness Gracious, Sakes Alive! my heart goes out toi those poor people. the early quote is a famous swearing, in the highest order, from John Wooden, part of his younger mid-western culture growing up.
    posted by taxpayer at 9:58 AM on May 23, 2011


    So the advice now seems to be that staying in a car can be as good in some situations

    I'm pretty sure this is based around the idea that you are more likely to be injured by debris than the winds themselves, and a car will provide some protection in this regard. Also, tornadoes often come out to play with thunderstorms, and a car is one of the safest places to be if lightning is going to be an issue.

    But yeah, don't drive during a tornado.
    posted by quin at 9:58 AM on May 23, 2011


    .
    posted by limeonaire at 10:00 AM on May 23, 2011


    But schmod, who will pay to retrofit the existing houses? People in the Midwest don't all live in new construction. The cities especially are already full of homes that were built decades ago.

    My house in St. Louis is 50 years old. There are plenty of houses here, especially in the city, that are 100 or even 150 years old. I'm lucky in that I have a nice deep concrete basement with added cinderblock interior walls. I feel pretty safe down there during most storms. But my house itself? It's a couple of layers of siding over wood frame. It's survived a minor earthquake and several storms. But a direct hit from a tornado would probably turn the upper level into matchsticks.

    The amount of money it would take to turn my home into a more generally tornado-safe building is more than the house is worth. I couldn't possibly afford it right now. (If I could afford it, believe me, it would already be done). And I'm solidly in the middle class. Most people who live in Missouri are not. The median income here is about $45,000. Many people would have to spend half a year's salary just to put in a small safe room.

    I'm all for safer construction, but to really protect people here we would probably need an infusion of federal tax dollars that is unlikely to come.

    (And before anyone from a non-flyover state says "Well, move then," please consider who would farm your food if we all did.)
    posted by BlueJae at 10:01 AM on May 23, 2011 [12 favorites]


    Then maybe the NWS should stop polluting the SAME channels with incessant tests that are going to lead anyone who has one to eventually disable the feature. Whose bright idea was that?

    My town recently upgraded its storm siren system with new ultra-loud spoken announcements. But you can't hear the words, they're totally garbled even if you live like 5 blocks away, like I do. So one morning, there was a severe thunderstorm warning.. AND the very first scheduled test of the system that they didn't bother to tell anyone about in advance. And they ran through every single recorded voice alert they had. I didn't know they had voice alerts, this was the first anyone had heard them. So I went outside in the storm and tried to hear them. I could only vaguely make out something about an armed gunman on the loose so stay indoors, tornado warnings. flash floods, everything but fire and brimstone. No, I take it back, they had a fire alert too.

    So I went inside to my computer and looked up if there were any alerts. There weren't. So I immediately started calling around the local emergency services offices. I finally got through to the guy who throws the switch. I told him it was a really bad idea to test the emergency warning sirens during a thunderstorm, it could cause unnecessary panic and it's a really bad idea to cry wolf. He seemed to think it was funny, it was his new toy and he was testing it out, so fuck you. I had to make a lot of phone calls before I managed to convince someone with actual authority to implement a policy of cancelling siren tests during actual storm alerts.

    Anyway, I've been through some pretty serious tornadoes. One hopped right over my house, but dropped such large hailstones, some over 6 inches across, that a cross-section of one hailstone made the cover of Scientific American magazine. And my dad operated a half-acre greenhouse that was the last glass house in the area, it was smashed to bits. After that, he put up fiberglass. Oh what a shame, that old glass house was beautiful. Ironically, another tornado hit that same spot about 2 or 3 years ago, except it landed right near my old home. The house wasn't seriously damaged, but 150 year old pine trees were snapped right in half. I was very sad, my old Victorian era home could be rebuilt, but it takes 150 years to replace 150 year old trees.

    Well anyway, back to storm warnings, here is my favorite. Alas it gets cut off at the beginning, so it starts like this:

    VFX: TORNADO WARNING
    VOICEOVER: We interrupt our regular programming for this Tornado Warning.
    CUT TO ANNOUNCER

    Oh if only warnings like that were effective.
    posted by charlie don't surf at 10:02 AM on May 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


    In 2003, I remember getting my Laura Ingalls Wilder newsletter in the mail and the headline was "In Memoriam: Manchester." I was like, wha? Oh, Manchester doesn't exist anymore. Wha? It got completely wiped out by a tornado. Very sad. (The town was dying anyway, and the tornado completed the process. From what I understand, it's been abandoned.)

    What happens to a town when it's abandoned, anyway? Does it just become part of the next town over, or what?
    posted by Melismata at 10:04 AM on May 23, 2011


    It sounds like you're better off staying in your car unless you have no chance of driving to shelter and there happens to be a convenient ditch nearby.

    Yes, but -- have you looked at those cars in Joplin?

    The reason for getting out of your car is your car presents a lot of surface to the wind, and can be easily blown into things at high speed.

    The reason for getting into a ditch is flying projectiles driven by the wind.

    The National Weather Service isn't on record against getting into a ditch; they still actively recommend it:

    No, they only suggest it if you can't find a ditch.
    Now you have the following options as a last resort:

    Stay in the car with the seat belt on. Put your head down below the windows, covering with your hands and a blanket if possible.

    If you can safely get noticeably lower than the level of the roadway, exit your car and lie in that area, covering your head with your hands.

    Your choice should be driven by your specific circumstances.
    Emphasis mine. From best to worst, if you're in a car and a tornado is nearby, you should

    1) Drive to the closest sturdy shelter and take refuge there, if you cannot and debris is starting to hit the car, then you should...

    2) Leave the car, but only if you can find a ditch that gets you lower than the roadway, otherwise

    3) Stay in the car, duck and cover, but

    !) Do not just stand on level ground without something protecting you from debris.

    So, if you are in the middle of a flat plain, a car is better than nothing, but a ditch next to the highway is far better than the car, and NWS hasn't changed that position in years.
    posted by eriko at 10:05 AM on May 23, 2011 [4 favorites]


    Spoke to my friend who is from Joplin. Thank god her family is all safe, missing one pet. Her dad's a doctor and has been at the hospital since it happened, says it is like being in a war zone.
    posted by LobsterMitten at 10:06 AM on May 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


    Civil_Disobedient: Once again, a mid-western canard that completely misses the point. There may not be any inexpensive ways of building completely 100% tornado-proof buildings, sure, but that doesn't mean you throw in the towel and build all your houses with stick-framed construction (99.9% of all the homes).

    Hear, hear! Here in Austria, most residential buildings are of "solid" construction - that is, heavy duty masonry and cinder blocks. This includes middle class single family homes, as well as multi-family apartment buildings. I'm too lazy to look up comparisons of construction costs between wood-frame housing and masonry housing, but the fact that almost no one in Austria builds a wood-frame building leads me to believe that we're not talking orders of magnitude differences in cost, here.

    Modern construction here is solid, with heavy duty, double-paned windows, heavy duty steel external doors and heavy duty roofing systems made from half-inch-thick concrete or metal 'shingles'.

    Granted, most Austrians don't live in 4,000+ square foot McMansions, but their housing is generally built to withstand severe weather and seismic events. Since moving to Austria over a decade ago, I'm convinced that US homeowners are being sold a bill of goods when they buy a wood-frame house.
    posted by syzygy at 10:11 AM on May 23, 2011


    Dear Joplin,

    I'm so sorry. Tornadoes are terrible, evil beasts.

    Love,

    Birmingham.
    posted by robstercraw at 10:14 AM on May 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


    .
    posted by byanyothername at 10:24 AM on May 23, 2011


    My mother is a consultant who works with two nursing homes in Joplin. They were both completely destroyed. She talked to a colleague there this morning who said they had between 10 and 17 minutes of warning, depending on what side of town you were on, but also said what I have since read elsewhere - most of the town didn't hear sirens because the storm itself was so loud.

    They managed to get all the patients out of one of the nursing homes; not so the other. Many residents are dead and many more missing. It's just tragic.
    posted by something something at 10:29 AM on May 23, 2011


    On NPR this morning, a local City Councilwoman said the hospital staff got some patients into a safe corner of the hospital, but one 300-pound man was sucked out a window. I shook my head: did I really hear that? I grew up in the Twin Cities, with first-Wednesday-of-the-month-at-1:00PM civil defense siren tests, but that image has stayed with me all day. Holy moly.
    posted by wenestvedt at 10:33 AM on May 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


    Just heard from my friend in Joplin (thank goodness) who estimates half the town to be completely gone. "It will take ages to get out from under this." Should probably head to the Red Cross after work and see what they need.
    posted by Heretic at 10:34 AM on May 23, 2011


    Can't meet those codes? Tough. Build someplace else.

    Way to provide a realistic, viable housing option for the majority of Midwesterners who, under your rules, would not be able to afford to live anywhere in the Midwest.

    Seriously, yours is a terrible way to deal with natural disasters. Can't afford a house on stilts? Don't build in the Ninth Ward. Can't afford a concrete geodesic dome? Don't build in Florida. Etc.

    Risk management is the task of balancing costs of risk mitigation devices against the likely cost of loss. The Midwest is more prone to tornadoes than the rest of the country, but they are still, all things considered, a relatively rare phenomenon. A given locality is not actually likely to see one on any given year. If we limited ourselves to building in places or with methods designed to withstand the rarest but most severe natural disasters--some of which we can't actually plan against, period--we'd drastically reduce the places in where we could live while drastically increasing the cost of construction in those few places we could.

    Really, the way to deal with this kind of thing is the way we are dealing with this kind of thing: insurance. 2011 is looking to be an absolutely brutal year for the P&C industry, I tell you what. But that's what it's there for: to spread the cost of these sorts of catastrophic losses not only from place to place, but from time to time. When you get insurance benefits, you are not only getting money that you paid in from years past, but money that other people who didn't have a loss this year paid in too. Banks requiring property insurance is a far, far cheaper option than the code changes you propose.
    posted by valkyryn at 10:36 AM on May 23, 2011 [10 favorites]


    Fuck. I grew up in the Ozarks, an hour from Joplin. I have fond memories of going to Joplin- playing in the park, skating at Bemo's, going to that ginormous Salvation Army.
    Now it's gone.
    I cried during this video of strangers huddled together at the Fastrip on 20th during the storm. It's incredibly powerful how kindly people treat one another sometimes.
    posted by joechip at 10:39 AM on May 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


    "What happens to a town when it's abandoned, anyway? Does it just become part of the next town over, or what?"

    Typically they "deincorporate," which the state has a procedure for. Either people who still live there vote to deincorporate, or the state has a process to deincorporate for them. Then it falls under county government for the general unincorporated areas of the county. We had a town of four voters (maybe seven people? There was a family with kids) vote to deincorporate last year after they all kept refusing to be mayor over and over and decided self-rule kinda sucked.

    posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:43 AM on May 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


    eriko: "The testing question is hard. Do you test frequently, proving that the system works, and run into the tune-out problem. Do you test rarely, and find out that the system doesn't work when you run a tornado into a town and nobody gets any alert at all?"

    They could do it at the same time as they test the sirens. Here it's the first wed of every month, at noon. As long as a tornado never comes on the first wed at noon...
    posted by dejah420 at 10:51 AM on May 23, 2011


    Do we have any way of easily finding out if there are mefites in/around any of the impact areas that need our help?
    posted by dejah420 at 10:52 AM on May 23, 2011


    In the video of the meteorologist choking up at the destruction (posted by futz), a resident mentioned the intersection near where they were standing. I looked it up on Google Maps in street view. Devastating.

    Maiden Lane and 26th Street, Joplin, MO
    posted by hautenegro at 10:52 AM on May 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


    jeanmarie, that kind of stupid is sadly common. One of the reasons I quit my bookstore job years ago was because, even after we sustained serious damage during a nasty tornado/hailstorm combo passing nearby, the store manager blew me off when I begged him to institute a security drill, put in safety flashlights, etc. for when a tornado did actually hit us.

    While that storm was pounding our roof (and the cars in the parking lot) with baseball sized hail, and tornado sirens were going off and lights were flickering, customers were still milling around blankly under the skylights and close to the giant plate glass windows.

    We employees took it upon ourselves to herd people away from the windows, but there were protests, and we had no official protocol for how to handle it, and we were just lucky nothing really bad happened and the lights didn't actually go out, because we had no flashlights. Meanwhile, we had a safe back area w/out windows where we logically should have been able to put them.

    I explain all this to my boss. I point out the coverage of how the tornado that hit Ft. Worth pretty much shredded an office tower and flattened other buildings. How we could save lives by establishing a simple procedure. He blew me off.

    Fuck that guy.
    posted by emjaybee at 10:54 AM on May 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


    valkyryn: Way to provide a realistic, viable housing option for the majority of Midwesterners who, under your rules, would not be able to afford to live anywhere in the Midwest.

    I absolutely do not want to be a jerk, but I'm going to pull the "link?" card here. You're making the claim that massive construction would be cost-prohibitive, but I'm not sure it's a claim based on fact.

    I've done some quick googling on the subject, and that plus anecdotal experience suggests to me that cinder block construction is not significantly more expensive than wood frame construction, and structures built with cinder blocks are more resistant to the high winds caused by a tornado or hurricane.
    posted by syzygy at 11:19 AM on May 23, 2011


    because we had no flashlights

    I carry one in my pocket at all times, it's not much bigger that the AA battery that powers it and it's helped me countless times to do mundane stuff like find dropped keys and cats hiding under sofas, but it's also helped guide my coworkers down the stairwells when my building lost power.

    I keep a couple of cheap but good lights in my car as well, and my house is full of them.

    I operate under a simple principle, if there is an emergency, the odds are good that you are going to want to see. Be ready for that.
    posted by quin at 11:19 AM on May 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


    Having lived my entire life in Tornado Alley, I am consistently amazed at the weird patterns of destruction left by tornadoes. Houses destroyed except for one wall with a shelf full of untouched knickknacks, or an entire Wal-Mart reduced to rubble, except for the pet aisles with their bags of food neatly lined up and unbroken on the shelf.

    Yeah, it's really crazy. My sister/brother/nephews-in-law live in St. Louis and their house was directly hit by the tornadoes about a month ago. My BIL and the boys were lucky to be able to ride it out in the basement (SIL was at work), but their home is totaled. They sent pictures soon after of their house -- roof totally gone, back wall completely knocked over so you can see into the house like a doll house. And one of the things that struck me from the pictures was seeing my BIL's bathrobe hanging on the hook in the bathroom. How did this storm blow their roof off and walls down but leave a robe on a hook?

    Watching the destruction in Joplin, I feel extra lucky that they were not hurt or killed. They've even spotted their missing cat although they're having trouble capturing him.
    posted by misskaz at 11:21 AM on May 23, 2011


    "Here it's the first wed of every month, at noon. As long as a tornado never comes on the first wed at noon..."

    Here (first Tuesdays at 10 a.m.), if the Tuesday is stormy, they test on the next clear day. This is clearly spelled out on the website for the sirens, in the front of your phone book, and, when it happens, is splashed on county and city websites, sent out by press release, and mentioned on seriously every weathercast. "Remember, because today is stormy, they will NOT be testing the weather alert sirens and any siren you hear does mean you need to take cover!" (And then on sunny Wednesday, they remind us that the sirens are being tested at an odd time.)

    F'ex, Dallas: "The system is tested on the first Wednesday of every month at 12:00 noon weather permitting. We do not test the sirens if the weather is bad or threatening; this helps to ensure that there will be no confusion as to whether it is a test or a real alert. "

    I still do a double-take on the rare occasions they test on a Wednesday, but I'd be surprised if most places didn't have a similar procedure for siren testing.
    posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:22 AM on May 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


    I'm too lazy to look up comparisons of construction costs between wood-frame housing and masonry housing, but the fact that almost no one in Austria builds a wood-frame building leads me to believe that we're not talking orders of magnitude differences in cost, here.

    Wood is a lot cheaper in the US than in Europe.
    posted by smackfu at 11:26 AM on May 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


    What happens to a town when it's abandoned, anyway? Does it just become part of the next town over, or what?

    This also probably depends on what kind of "town" it is. From state to state, there's actually considerable variation on what constitutes a local government. Towns, cities, counties, villages, townships, etc can have entirely different legal statuses within a state, and across states. In Virginia, there are several towns that are a part of no county, areas that are part of a county but no town, areas that are part of a county and an unincorporated village, and I believe a handful of areas that are completely unincorporated. It's complicated and really confusing.

    posted by schmod at 11:27 AM on May 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


    Right before I turned 9, a tornado ripped up the venerable (if ugly) Har Mar Mall. Reading about it today, I learned that the destruction of a record store launched Best Buy chain: "The twister destroyed a business called 'Sound of Music' that day. The owner sold off the damaged inventory in a 'Best Buy' sale. It was so popular that it became the permanent name for the Minnesota Company that today is the largest electronics retailer in the country."
    posted by wenestvedt at 11:33 AM on May 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


    I've done some quick googling on the subject, and that plus anecdotal experience suggests to me that cinder block construction is not significantly more expensive than wood frame construction, and structures built with cinder blocks are more resistant to the high winds caused by a tornado or hurricane.
    The people who are (by far) the most vulnerable to dying in tornadoes are people who live in mobile or manufactured homes. According to this from the WSJ, of the 45 Americans who died in tornadoes in 2010, 20 were in mobile homes and only 11 in other houses and one in another building. (And less than 10% of Americans live in mobile homes.) So I'm not sure that wood vs. cinder block is really the important issue here.
    posted by craichead at 11:34 AM on May 23, 2011


    How rare is the Joplin tornado and 2011 season? Weather channel breaks it down:

    * Joplin, Mo. tornado is the deadliest single U.S. tornado in almost 58 years, since 90 were killed in Worcester, Mass. on Jun. 9, 1953.

    *There are only 14 tornadoes documented in U.S. history that have claimed over 100 lives. The last was Flint, Mich. tornado of June 8, 1953.

    *Exceeded 400 U.S. tornado deaths in 2011. This is the first year this has occurred since 1953 (519 fatalities)

    *only 9 other years since 1875 with over 400 U.S. tornado deaths documented

    *2 of the top 10 deadliest tornado days in U.S. history happened in 2011

    April 27, 2011 (Ala., Tenn., Ga., Miss., Va.): 315
    April 3, 1974 ("Super Outbreak"): 307
    April 11, 1965 ("Palm Sunday Outbreak"): 260
    March 21, 1952: 202
    June 8, 1953 (Flint, Mich., etc.): 142
    May 11, 1953 (Waco, Tex, etc.): 127
    Feb. 21, 1971: 121
    May 25, 1955 (Udall, Kan., etc.): 102
    May 22, 2011 (Joplin, Minneapolis): 91
    June 9, 1953 (Worcester, Mass.): 90

    *Some might say logically it's because there are more people/houses so of course there are more deaths now than in the past. But stats show number of tornado deaths per capita has been on a steady decline since about 1925, with certain peak years like 2011. See graph in above link, it shows a possible trend reversal occurring post-2000.
    posted by stbalbach at 11:39 AM on May 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


    craichhead: The people who are (by far) the most vulnerable to dying in tornadoes are people who live in mobile or manufactured homes.

    I know it's tough to make simple comparisons, but I'd like to point out that most people who would live in a mobile home in the US live in one of the following in Austria:

    1. State-subsidized, solid constructed multi-family housing
    2. Multiple generations sharing a single, solidly-constructed home (think - 3 story home with one apartment / one generation per story)
    3. Self-constructed homes (usually built out of cinder blocks)

    I grew up in Texas, so I'm used to wood-frame construction, tornadoes and hurricanes. Maybe I'm just another one of those Murcans who's been ruined by living too long in Yerp.
    posted by syzygy at 11:45 AM on May 23, 2011


    I'm convinced that US homeowners are being sold a bill of goods when they buy a wood-frame house.

    The odds of a F4/F5 hitting a building in its lifetime are very small. The idea is to have a safe bunker to hide in and sacrifice the building and pay for insurance.

    Also I'd rather be in a wood building during a earthquake than masonry, these areas are in the second most dangerous earthquake part of the country (CA being first). In fact the odds of being in a major earthquake are probably higher there than being hit by a tornado, since a big one is due in the next 40 years or so, and it will impact an area from New York to Colorado when it hits. The North American plate is like a solid marble sheet from CA to Iceland, with a pimple of magma pushing up from underneath near Memphis - the shock waves spread out a long distance, unlike CA where two plate rub together and shock waves disipate quickly due to the fractured plate edges absorb the energy.
    posted by stbalbach at 11:54 AM on May 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


    If you live in Tornado Alley, then building for severe weather sure seems wise, just as Californians have to build for earthquake safety. I grew up in a part of Ohio that has tornadoes, but it's a rare threat. Most buildings do fine in most weather, short of a direct tornado hit. The exception is mobile homes. Even if attached to the ground, they are a horrible idea if you want to survive a hurricane, tornado or severe wind. The ones I've seen are also not very easy to get out of in a fire.

    I'm so sorry for all this tragedy, Missouri.
    posted by theora55 at 11:58 AM on May 23, 2011


    According to the 2005 National Building Cost Manual, just changing the exterior walls to masonry adds anywhere from 6-9% to the cost of construction. But really trying to make your house tornado resistant is going to mean using better quality building materials across the board, particularly in the roof and foundation,* and moving from a class 3-4 structure to a class 1-2 structure adds more than a third to the cost. So really, we could be looking at adding 40% to the cost of a traditional single-family home to really make it tornado-resistant.

    Given that housing is the second-largest item in most household budgets (after taxes), adding even 10% to that cost would impose significant hardship on a lot of people.

    I'd like to point out that most people who would live in a mobile home in the US live in one of the following in Austria:

    Europe doesn't have a lot of trailer parks, it's true. But the average age of most European homes is drastically older than most American homes. Something like 25-35% of European housing was built before 1945 (so really, before 1940) whereas only 19% of US housing was. And timber is drastically cheaper in the US than in Europe, so that directs housing preferences somewhat. Americans have also chosen to live in larger houses, on average. Single family homes are about 50% of the US market and had an average size of 1950 square feet, whereas apartments, which are most of the rest of the market, had an average of 970 square feet. By contrast, the average of all housing units in Germany and Austria was right around 1000 square feet.

    But really, all of that is neither here nor there. Just because North America is not Europe, and here as in most other issues, there's no good reason to think that something which works in one would work in the other.

    *Strong tornadoes can pick a house clean off a concrete slab.
    posted by valkyryn at 12:05 PM on May 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


    One of my family is a physician in Joplin. He and his family are fine, but many, many families will be in need of food, shelter, and basic supplies for weeks to come. If you would like to help, he suggests contacting or donating to The Alliance of Southwest Missouri, a locally-based, well-established organization that is in a good position to deliver aid expediently.
    posted by Spinneret at 12:07 PM on May 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


    stbalbach: Also I'd rather be in a wood building during a earthquake than masonry.

    Apparently, confined masonry construction performs well in earthquakes (PDF), too. This is the kind of 'solid' or 'massive' construction I'm talking about in Austria.

    I don't want to hijack the thread - my serious, heartfelt sympathies go out to those who were affected by this and other recent tornadoes in the US. Devastating images that lead my solutions-oriented brain to start thinking about how to ameliorate the problem in the longer term.
    posted by syzygy at 12:08 PM on May 23, 2011


    So, I just got my power back on here in St. Louis after a second set of severe storms plowed through most of the state today (including Joplin, which was hit with severe straight line winds and hail). Now my husband is going to pick my son up from his elementary school because there was extensive tree damage in that neighborhood and the streets are flooding there and they have no power.

    Seriously, fuck the 2011 tornado season.

    Anyway please send as much help as possible to Joplin. Even more severe weather is predicted tonight and tomorrow, and I'm not sure many people there have anywhere safe to go.
    posted by BlueJae at 12:13 PM on May 23, 2011


    This all just hurts to read. It just feels like this stuff is happening in waves....

    I have an art school buddy in the area, he's okay, thankfully.
    posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 12:18 PM on May 23, 2011


    :( tornadoes this year. booo.
    posted by nile_red at 12:19 PM on May 23, 2011


    May 22, 2011 JOPLIN, Mo. — Members of the Joplin High School graduating class of 2011 will receive diplomas today in ceremonies at 3 p.m. at Missouri Southern State University.
    Following are excerpts from speeches being presented today by five of the members of the graduating class
    posted by timsteil at 12:38 PM on May 23, 2011


    If you live in Tornado Alley, then building for severe weather sure seems wise, just as Californians have to build for earthquake safety.

    The difference is that earthquakes affect everyone over a large area, whereas people can go their entire lives in Tornado Alley and never even see a tornado. One tore through my grandparents' home town a few years ago, when my grandparents were in their mid-70s, and it was the first tornado they'd ever experienced. And even that one, which destroyed the supermarket 100 yards from their front door, did no significant damage to their home. My entire extended family lives in Missouri and we've never suffered any consequences from severe weather, with the exception of a few dents on car hoods from hail. Despite what we see on the news, and the exceptionally horrific season we've had this year, tornadoes are just not a common danger for the average citizen.
    posted by something something at 12:38 PM on May 23, 2011 [4 favorites]


    Comparing building in Tornado Alley to earthquake or hurricane-prone areas doesn't really work. Earthquakes and hurricanes usually damage large areas at a time. If there's a substantial earthquake or hurricane in your town - your house will probably be hit. That just isn't the case with tornadoes. Most of the time, they skip and jump and cause a little damage here and a little damage there. This kind of neighborhood-flattening tornado is extremely rare, and even when it does happen, it doesn't usually hit an area with high population. Tornado Alley is huge and includes a whole lot of sparsely populated and unpopulated areas. I lived in Tulsa for 36 years and went through God-only-knows how many tornado watches and warnings, but I never personally witnessed a tornado and never knew anyone who was killed (or even injured) by a tornado. I had hail damage, flood damage and ice storm damage (that was an awful year), but zero tornado damage. It makes sense for everyone in Tornado Alley to be taught where to go and what to do in case of a tornado, but it doesn't make sense to require the kind of expense it would take to build tornado-proof houses all throughout the area. Not when houses already have bathtubs that will keep people safe through anything but a truly extraordinary disaster.
    posted by Dojie at 12:44 PM on May 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


    With the disclaimer that both of these lists are incomplete, check out the length of the list of North American tornadoes vs. the length of the list of European tornadoes. Europe doesn't even close to matching the wrath of the North American skies, so I don't know how the housing situations can be fairly compared.
    posted by desjardins at 12:54 PM on May 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


    First-person video yt of Joplin MO tornado 5/22/11

    Jesus Christ.
    posted by rtha at 1:04 PM on May 23, 2011


    The big picture....
    posted by lalochezia at 1:13 PM on May 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


    NPR is reporting that many of the homes hit were built in the 60's and had no basements. I live in tornado alley and when I bought my home a basement (finished or not) was on the top of my list. I love the atmosphere right before a big storm or tornado. In spite of the fact that I have a basement I am most likely to be one of the idiots watching from my front porch when it hits.

    Also, But the tornado warning system – and how it's applied by states and municipalities – may also be playing a role in affecting those attitudes. Smith calls it the "crying wolf" phenomenon. On Sunday, for example, tornado sirens went off in Lawrence, Kan., even though the area was outside the National Weather Service's tornado warning report. About three-fourths of all tornado sirens are false alarms, according to a National Weather Service study.

    posted by futz at 1:14 PM on May 23, 2011


    What people really need is a weather radio and underground shelter. The battery or crank operated radio is crucial for all storms but especially those at night. If the power goes out your TV and computer are useless. I know that underground shelters are impossible in high water table areas... a built in "bunker type room" might be the answer in that case. Probably wouldn't be hard to retrofit and a hell of a lot more cost effective than tornado proof (not realistic or certain) a home; new build or otherwise.
    posted by futz at 1:22 PM on May 23, 2011


    Did anyone notice the previous deadliest storm was in Worcester, MA? Seems like the Northeast would be pretty completely unprepared for a tornado, as far as warnings. Though I guess they do tend to have basements up here.
    posted by smackfu at 1:27 PM on May 23, 2011


    Here's a video from NOAA's Environmental Visualization Library of the record breaking number of tornadoes produced in April.

    High-res image of the storm hitting Joplin.
    posted by nile_red at 1:29 PM on May 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


    On Sunday, for example, tornado sirens went off in Lawrence, Kan., even though the area was outside the National Weather Service's tornado warning report. About three-fourths of all tornado sirens are false alarms, according to a National Weather Service study.

    I believe they got the day wrong -- the sirens went off here in Lawrence on Saturday, before the skies had clouded over and causing some confusion. I checked the weather radar online, found out there was a funnel near Forbes Field in Topeka (about 20 miles to the east) and went outside to check things out and talk to neighbors, as one does.

    But I don't think the sirens were a bad call; there were funnel clouds reported both north and south of town Saturday night, although where I live didn't get anything more than some rain.
    posted by rewil at 1:32 PM on May 23, 2011


    [W]hy are there no tornado building codes in Tornado Alley?

    According to Tim Reinhold, senior vice president for research and chief engineer at the Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS) in Tampa, Fla., it comes down to something called the "return period" -- the interval between two disaster events in a given location. Although major tornadoes happen every year, the likelihood they'll happen twice in the same place is very low.

    "In some areas of California, earthquakes happen tens or hundreds of years apart, and they affect a tremendous area with a lot of properties," Reinhold told Life's Little Mysteries."But for a tornado hitting a particular location in Tornado Alley, you're dealing with return periods of thousands of years."
    Link
    posted by maggieb at 1:33 PM on May 23, 2011


    And, because we apparently hate Joplin, MO, they're under a Severe Thunderstorm Warning.

    This is not a repeat from 0830CDT today, either.

    Add on the flash flood warning as well.
    posted by eriko at 1:35 PM on May 23, 2011


    maggieb's link says what I was about to add. Essentially, the probability of a house in an earthquake zone being affected by an earthquake during its lifetime is close to 1. The probability of a particular house in Tornado Alley being affected by a tornado during that house's lifetime is close to zero.
    posted by plastic_animals at 1:51 PM on May 23, 2011


    valkaryn: By contrast, the average of all housing units in Germany and Austria was right around 1000 square feet.

    That sounds about right - Europeans build smaller, more long-lasting, safer houses. They trade a little space for durability and peace of mind, which fits rather nicely into the standard clichés.

    If you're willing to sacrifice some space for safety, it doesn't seem that building a tornado-proof house is cost-prohibitive. Reduce the size of your wood frame house by 28% (according to your back of the cuff calculations) and you can afford a sturdy, durable concrete house that's going to do a better job of withstanding a tornado or hurricane (and probably lower your lifetime energy and maintenance/repair bills, while you're at it).

    desjardins: I don't know how the housing situations can be fairly compared.

    I'm not exactly following your line of reasoning here. Houses in Europe tend to be built out of steel-reinforced concrete, while houses in the US tend to be built out of wooden frames. Houses built out of concrete offer more protection against wind than wood-frame houses.

    The number / severity of tornadoes on each continent doesn't seem to be a relevant variable in that comparison, other than to suggest that Europeans might be over cautious, since they're building stronger homes, although their risk of tornadoes (and similar catastrophic weather events) is comparatively much lower.
    posted by syzygy at 1:54 PM on May 23, 2011


    Here's a striking set of aftermath photos. I don't remember ever seeing so many trees completely destroyed ... and debarked. Wrenching.
    posted by Twang at 1:54 PM on May 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


    I'm not exactly following your line of reasoning here.

    That's OK, neither am I. I guess my point, sort of, is that Europe didn't build stronger, smaller, safer houses because of tornadoes.
    posted by desjardins at 2:01 PM on May 23, 2011


    "They are issuing warnings based on observing rotation on the Doppler radars now, as opposed to waiting for confirmation from a spotter. That does means there have been warnings which resulted in no probable "grounding" (wrong technical term, I'm sure) of a tornado. From my personal observation in Northern Virginia, the "false alarm" rate of this isn't a problem, but that's just anecdata."
    posted by stevis23 at 11:18


    This only works within 100 km at best, since doppler radar is affected by the Earth's curvature and tornadoes are usually less than a mile tall. Also, the resolution of the radar image is limited at distance as well. LINK

    A classmate of mine did a GIS project that found metropolitan areas that are vastly underserved by doppler and recommended 5 new doppler sites in MO to cover those cities (including 90% of Columbia!). The pricetag for 5 of these doppler towers? $50 million or more.

    So far, all of my friends and family are ok in Joplin, but have all lost their houses. All my friends and family in Tuscaloosa and Birmingham also were missed. All in all, 2011 has been super intense and scary for my friends and I.

    Also, I donated blood today for the first time in 14 years. It's sad that a disaster close to home is what it takes to remind me that I should be doing this every 56 days, not every 14 years.

    .
    posted by schyler523 at 2:05 PM on May 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


    Also, yesterday was our wedding anniversary and we got home to really scary facebook messages...

    No thanks Mother Earth...next year sunshine and puppies would be a better gift, eh?
    posted by schyler523 at 2:06 PM on May 23, 2011


    A big plug here for NOAA weather radios. Joplin is not a large metro area with the kind of media that some of the bigger cities (OKC, St. Louis, etc.) in tornado alley have. The Severe Storms Laboratory (now called the Storm Prediction Center) in Norman, OK issued warnings repeatedly. The key is people receiving them.

    Just a horrible tragedy. Horrible.
    posted by Gerard Sorme at 2:24 PM on May 23, 2011


    Man. The Minneapolis tornado missed my neighborhood by a couple miles. Very glad as always in that situation to be in a concrete block basement with a steel beam reinforcing the ceiling. We're really lucky to have wound up with so few injuries here, considering that the property damage is pretty bad. The situation in Joplin seems close to the worst case scenario: sudden, hard to see, very big and very intense. Jeeze, may the South catch some breaks now?
    posted by nanojath at 2:24 PM on May 23, 2011


    syzygy wrote: "I've done some quick googling on the subject, and that plus anecdotal experience suggests to me that cinder block construction is not significantly more expensive than wood frame construction, and structures built with cinder blocks are more resistant to the high winds caused by a tornado or hurricane."

    Not as much as you'd think. An EF3 is survivable in stick-frame construction so long as you're in the middle of the building. Cinderblock construction doesn't actually hold up much better, as far as a person sheltering within surviving. It will still be leveled in an EF5 and severely damaged in an EF4. That Wal-Mart mentioned above was built out of cinder blocks, as they all are.

    (an F1 can roll a mobile home..those things are death traps without more substantial shelter nearby)
    posted by wierdo at 2:35 PM on May 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


    syzygy writes "I've done some quick googling on the subject, and that plus anecdotal experience suggests to me that cinder block construction is not significantly more expensive than wood frame construction, and structures built with cinder blocks are more resistant to the high winds caused by a tornado or hurricane."

    Cinder block construction is significantly more expensive than wood frame construction. It also results in a swack load more CO2 emissions (cement production is a very heavy CO2 producer). And it is harder and more expensive to insulate. Remember many of the places in Tornado alley see temperatures in the mid 40Cs, either minus or positive. In comparison Austria norms are from -10 to +30.

    theora55 writes "The exception is mobile homes. Even if attached to the ground, they are a horrible idea if you want to survive a hurricane, tornado or severe wind."

    Mobile homes have gotten wildly better since Hurricane Andrew (I Think, one of the recent big ones anyways) at resisting the wind associated with hurricanes. New standards were implemented that addressed weaknesses causing them to blow apart. I've seen pictures where you can pick out the pre and post standard units in a park post hurricane by the simple expedient of pre the trailer has been completely destroyed and post the trailer experienced finish damage from flying debris.
    posted by Mitheral at 3:05 PM on May 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


    valkyryn: " When you get insurance benefits, you are not only getting money that you paid in from years past, but money that other people who didn't have a loss this year paid in too. Banks requiring property insurance is a far, far cheaper option than the code changes you propose."

    That covers property, but what about in terms of saving lives? I honestly don't see why this needs to be an either/or situation. Can we not have insurance continue to take care of reconstruction while a perhaps federally assisted* program starts to convert government buildings and new homes to more exacting tornado-readiness standards? Even if the process is slow, and it likely would be, it still seems better than just letting insurance companies continuously repair property damage already done.

    *That is to say, funded in part by federal tax dollars, with other sources including state tax, the insurance companies themselves, and other sources.
    posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 3:06 PM on May 23, 2011


    Also, I do not appreciate the NWS calling for a 25% chance of tornadoes this evening. (here in Tulsa) Tomorrow appears to be ripe for another outbreak in this general area, also.

    Luckily for those in Joplin, it appears that the storminess that has plagued them all day has also reduced the threat of further tornadoes.
    posted by wierdo at 3:11 PM on May 23, 2011


    Also, I do not appreciate the NWS calling for a 25% chance of tornadoes this evening. (here in Tulsa)

    What does that mean? What don't you appreciate? Is your problem with science (meteorology) and/or mathematics (percentages)? I'm confused.
    posted by Gerard Sorme at 3:19 PM on May 23, 2011


    Reading that again, I think you were just being sarcastic. I understand now. You just don't want any tornadoes around. Sorry, I just didn't read it right.
    posted by Gerard Sorme at 3:30 PM on May 23, 2011


    I'm already seeing people (friends, on FB and elsewhere) saying that it's a "miracle" that more people weren't killed, and that they see "God's Hand" in the saving of lives.

    Bullshit, folks. It's not a miracle. It's because of tax-funded items like the Doppler radar and the emergency warning systems and the rescue personnel, and the Big Brother government intrusion of building codes, and the science of meteorology. If the Tea Party wet dream came to pass, hundreds more people would die in disasters like these. Etiquette says one should keep one's mouth shut out of respect and not politicize disasters, but fuck that. The hundreds and thousands of people whose lives were spared over the past three days of unbelievable storms? That's your tax dollars at work.

    grumble grumble graar.
    posted by KathrynT at 3:42 PM on May 23, 2011 [22 favorites]


    KathrynT, yup! And I suggest that you don't read the comments on any Weather Channel story. God saved all the posters yet killed everyone else around them! God is great! Prayers answered! Science or the positioning of an interior bathroom (or the random footprint of a storm...) had nothing to do with it. Yay!
    posted by futz at 4:15 PM on May 23, 2011


    Yikes. I taught for 12 years at MSSU, a few blocks from the path of the tornado, and have many friends back there still. I spent a lot of time on Facebook last night and this morning looking for people. Two members of my old ten-person department lost their homes but both are OK. One friend who I have lost touch with and can't find any information about lived right in the center of the swath, in a '60s era slab house with no basement. Hope he and his family are well.
    posted by LarryC at 5:00 PM on May 23, 2011


    Well, I spoke too soon about the Joplin High graduation working out ok. Apparently a friend of my little brother's was on his way home from graduating and was literally sucked out the window of his car - disappeared and presumed dead. Damn.

    I find natural disasters especially frustrating because there's not even anyone I can be angry at.
    posted by naoko at 5:02 PM on May 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


    That covers property, but what about in terms of saving lives? I honestly don't see why this needs to be an either/or situation.

    I think what we really need here is perspective. What happened in Joplin is awful and tragic. I had lunch with a friend from Joplin who's actually considering moving back to help with the rebuilding. But Missouri alone has almost six million people living in it. So even if the death toll hits 200, we're talking about 0.003% of the population. And even that's way, way higher than usual. If you look at the death tables for Missouri, you can see that a total of 113 people died of "All Other External Causes," which would include not only tornadoes, but all other natural disasters. By contrast, 900 people died in car crashes and 440 people were murdered. Going after tornadoes really isn't a good way of significantly decreasing the number of people who die.

    But ultimately, tornadoes are just something that people deal with. Yes, some people are going to die. But not very many, and if we move beyond measures like public education and effective evacuation methods, the cost of preventing any deaths by changing the building code is just unbelievable. We'd be better off spending our money elsewhere. Say on education or health care.

    Can we not have insurance continue to take care of reconstruction while a perhaps federally assisted* program starts to convert government buildings and new homes to more exacting tornado-readiness standards?

    Sure. It just costs money, and doesn't strike me as something that is or should be high on anyone's priority list right now. This is one of the deadliest hurricanes in years, and there have only been fifteen tornadoes in US history that killed more than 250 people. But you're talking about replacing tens of millions of housing units at a cost which is likely to exceed $100,000 a pop. Call it $1-3 trillion. To prevent what is really a very, very unlikely way to die. It's just not worth it, even spreading that cost out over a decade or two.

    Even if the process is slow, and it likely would be, it still seems better than just letting insurance companies continuously repair property damage already done.

    The insurance companies aren't entirely without recourse here, for what it's worth. Insuring houses in tornado-prone areas is more expensive than in cheaper ones, which does serve to drive up the cost of housing just a tad. So there are some economic incentives for living elsewhere. But they're very small compared to the cost of actually living elsewhere, i.e. the cost of factoring in the risk transfer for the unlikely event of a tornado is way, way less than just living in Pennsylvania, period. The average listing price of a house in Missouri is $205,000. The average listing price of a house in Pennsylvania is $259,000. And the Missouri house is probably bigger.

    Furthermore, insurance companies can and do charge more for houses that are at a higher risk of damage. Many will even refuse to write a house that is inadequately designed for the weather to which it will be exposed. Insurance companies can and do impose requirements which go above and beyond building codes in many cases. They don't like paying losses any more than you like having them. But really, the way we're doing things now probably is the most cost-efficient way of doing it, as we lose so few houses to tornadoes anyway that spending a ton of money to make them all tornado-proof is way more expensive than just replacing the few hundred that we lose ever year.

    Tl;dr: Everyone is going to die, even if we spent the entire economy trying to prevent it. But if we're looking to save the most lives for the money we do spend, there are much, much better ways to go about it than trying to prevent tornado fatalities.
    posted by valkyryn at 5:11 PM on May 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


    The National Weather Service isn't on record against getting into a ditch; they still actively recommend it:

    No, they only suggest it if you can't find a ditch.


    I think we're saying the same things there, eriko, and you might have misread something, or I'm confused.

    posted by mediareport at 5:11 PM on May 23, 2011


    valkyryn: "Tl;dr: Everyone is going to die, even if we spent the entire economy trying to prevent it. But if we're looking to save the most lives for the money we do spend, there are much, much better ways to go about it than trying to prevent tornado fatalities."

    OK, putting aside the entire acceptable losses thing, I think a combined effort towards prevention at a federal, state and private level would pay off in the long run. In fact, it could be said that it'd be in the best interests of insurance companies to help prevent future structural destructions. There's no question it'd cost money, but if part of the money I was paying to my insurance company to repair my home in the event of a tornado were also going towards the building/restructuring of homes, hospitals, fire departments and schools that would fare far better in a tornado than they do now, I'd have little objection, personally.
    posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 5:21 PM on May 23, 2011


    Just because people believe that the divine played a role in their safety does not mean they are against taxes, radar systems, or warning systems.

    I went to school in Joplin and have visited it regularly ever since I graduated eight years ago. I have friends who live there yet and love the city's past. It's a city currently on the rebound, renovating and preserving its historic buildings, and working to build an even better community. My history professor, adviser, and friend, lost his home yesterday (and his dog). I believe that the apartment I lived in for three years was probably wiped off the map, as were the businesses I grew intimately familiar with because they were right down the street from that apartment.

    I'm safely three 1/2 hours away, but at the moment, unable to do much to help other than to offer my prayers and to donate blood tomorrow. It's shocking to see photographs of places I should know but find completely unrecognizable.

    There's good people in Joplin, and this isn't the time, nor the place, to demean them with generalize comments about the faith which will very much help them to get through these hard times.
    posted by Atreides at 5:32 PM on May 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


    Preliminary rating is EF4

    At the bottom of this page, you can see the radar signature that the meteorologists in the NWS Springfield office were looking at. From my understanding, the warning went out 24 minutes before the storm hit (and there were previous warnings on the storm when it was in Kansas). However, there was not the enhanced/tornado emergency/gotoshelterwe'rereallynotkidding wording that is often put into the products when there is a known tornado headed for a populated area. This chaser video has it going from wall cloud to wispy funnel to huge wedge in under a minute (NSFW language). There just wasn't time to put out that extra product after the tornado was confirmed.

    As far as building codes go, concrete blocks themselves are not going to be enough. The night Greensburg, KS was hit in 2007 a man was killed when a concrete block wall fell on him, even though he was taking shelter in his basement. The concrete blocks have to be reinforced with steel bars and more concrete poured within them. It just isn't practical for a whole house to be built this way, which is why they are mostly marketed as "safe-rooms".
    posted by weathergal at 5:33 PM on May 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


    Scientific efforts are taking a direct hit right now. It's like a tornado of anti-science has affected the population of this country. Read Facebook comments and yes, TWC comments. God has a place in my statement, not because I put it out there...others did. /derail
    posted by futz at 5:46 PM on May 23, 2011


    naoko, damn. I hope that you and your brother are ok. Speechless. Internet hugs.
    posted by futz at 5:57 PM on May 23, 2011


    There's no question it'd cost money, but if part of the money I was paying to my insurance company to repair my home in the event of a tornado were also going towards the building/restructuring of homes, hospitals, fire departments and schools that would fare far better in a tornado than they do now, I'd have little objection, personally.

    Fair enough, I just think that you drastically underestimate the amount of money it's going to take to do this. You're talking about rebuilding essentially every home in a dozen states. Doing that in our lifetimes is going to cost potentially dozens of billions billions of dollars per year, if not hundreds. I'd much rather see that money directed towards more pressing problems.
    posted by valkyryn at 6:07 PM on May 23, 2011


    Some comments from facebook (names xxx'd out for privacy);

    -Looking for xxxxx 2xxx 24th...elderly lady that lives alone...friend of my grandma. Not listed on safe and well site. Please message me if you know how she is.

    -xxxx and I were married at Blendville Christian Church in Joplin, Mo. A friend tells me it was likely in the path of the tornado.
    6 minutes ago · Like ·

    ----Just talked to classmate xxxx xxxxx and his parents were in the sanctuary at Blendville Christian when someone came running in and ushered them down into the basement. When it was over, the sanctuary was gone.

    -In the photographs you can see the horizon for miles and it's just flat! No bldgs, telephone poles, trees, nothing. Just little stubbs here and there of what used to be. Horrific.

    -My parents house today...most of the roof is gone on the house so the ceiling has all caved in inside the house so that we can't get in much....so many lines...warzone feeling

    -would like to send out a special thanks to @xxxx, @xxxx, @xxxxx, @xxxxx for helping @xxxx and I salvage our stuff today. We love you all very much. Thanks to @xxxxfor helping by watching xxxxx's younglings. Thanks to everyone else who offered to help and all the warm sentiments. People are the most important "things" in our lives. We love you all.

    -xxxxx, Mom, and I witnessed a man get struck with lighting on a four wheeler not too long ago and most likely died. Thankfully there were firefighters and policemen not even 12ft away from him. They dragged him to the near by ambulance and rushed off.

    -we noticed today that the house moved on the foundation. They will bulldoze the remains soon.

    -Buckle up friends I think Act 2 may be tomorrow afternoon/evening

    -MISSING PERSON: xxxxx xxxxxxx, 8 months pregnant, Please call YYYY (xxx)-xxx-xxxx

    -This is the back of my childhood home....I am beyond shocked...

    ----

    These are from the last hour of 24 hours filled with much of the same. It's just a more personal view of what's happening to the people of Joplin.
    posted by Atreides at 7:15 PM on May 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


    holy fuck. i just tried to watch that video

    First-person video of Joplin MO tornado 5/22/11
    posted by lemuring at 10:13 AM


    i was watching with headphones on my mac while boyfriend was watching news.
    having seen many tornado videos i wasn't prepared to be as horrified as i was.

    i had to rip out my headphones and hit pause. i have a strong stomach, but that audio was the most terrifying thing i've ever heard. i think i might have passed out from fear had i been there in person. it's been about 10 minutes and i'm still shaking a bit.

    i was scared just LISTENING to it. i stopped listening about the time they got into the walkin and you stopped being able to hear anything except the storm.

    i had no idea, really. no idea at all. i live near freight trains, i hear them all the time. that was not a fucking freight train. christ.
    posted by sio42 at 7:22 PM on May 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


    Holy shit, I'm watching Anderson Cooper and my brother's friend is the kid whose family was on earlier - supposedly he was spotted alive in a hospital, but he has since been moved and phone service is still too spotty to track him down. Seems promising though! I don't believe in miracles, but if he's made it that's pretty darn cool. Crossing my fingers...
    posted by naoko at 7:28 PM on May 23, 2011 [5 favorites]


    "God’s grace looks intact every time it’s not you."
    ---Stephen King, Herman Wouk Is Still Alive, 2011.
    posted by marxchivist at 7:28 PM on May 23, 2011 [6 favorites]


    KathrynT writes "If the Tea Party wet dream came to pass, hundreds more people would die in disasters like these. Etiquette says one should keep one's mouth shut out of respect and not politicize disasters, but fuck that. The hundreds and thousands of people whose lives were spared over the past three days of unbelievable storms? That's your tax dollars at work."

    One of the little things that would likely fall through the cracks of the "drown it in the bathtub" type goverment is reservation of ham bands for non commerical uses. No one or group in the ham world could possibly compete with how much that spectrum is worth to business. And elimination of those bands for public use would not only result in poorer coordination post disaster but also harm early warning efforts.

    valkyryn writes "Fair enough, I just think that you drastically underestimate the amount of money it's going to take to do this. You're talking about rebuilding essentially every home in a dozen states. Doing that in our lifetimes is going to cost potentially dozens of billions billions of dollars per year, if not hundreds. I'd much rather see that money directed towards more pressing problems."

    Retro fitting all housing stock to tornado proofness would be very expensive. Requiring new construction to incorporate a safe room into the structure would cost much less; FEMA figures as low as $6,300 for an 8X8 safe room. Reinforcing a standard bathroom would cost less. New commercial construction could also require safe rooms to be incorporated. Few commercial properties lack storerooms, lavatories or offices that could serve double duty as a tornado resistant refuge. New trailer parks could be required to provide refuge space that could be incorporated into buildings like offices, laundromats or storage buildings.

    Maybe that wouldn't be cost effective either. I know I'd much rather have a safe room built into my master bath than granite counter tops if I lived in a tornado risk area however I am quite risk adverse.

    Here for example is a 6X8 storm cellar "kit" for $3000 + Delivery. It requires a 4.5' deep hole for installation. It appears that many precast companies offer similar structures. Here's an example that doubles as a set of entry stairs. All of the linked examples require partial burial however these companies also offer above ground units. Unfortunately at additional cost but with new construction above ground units can be incorporated into the home.
    posted by Mitheral at 8:05 PM on May 23, 2011


    Pictures are coming back from family in Joplin. The devastation in their neighborhood looks complete and absolute. To look at the photographs, I wonder that the death toll isn't in the thousands.
    posted by jquinby at 8:34 PM on May 23, 2011


    Jeanne Gwin, a user on ourlocal Freecycle posted just a little while ago:

    This is what I know is happening in Joplin. They have requested several times today DO NOT SEND CLOTHING, SHOES or TOYS. There is no place to store and sort these items at this time. They are diverting all donations away from the scene and sending them home. If you have made arrangements for delivery through a church make sure you have clearance to get in. Before making a trip with items, contact FEMA or the National Guard for advice as to when. No need to make a trip to be turned around.

    If you are collecting items here are the most needed items at this time, most anything baby, diapers (disposable), wipes, bottles, pacifiers, baby food, disposable plastic spoons, dried milk, baby juices, blankets (go buy fleece and cut it into a square and that is plenty big and WARM), socks are a necessity, if baby's feet are warm, they are able to keep warmer, Kleenex, paper towels, toilet tissue, adult hand wipes or anti-bacterial gel, baby Tylenol, baby ibuprofen and LAST BUT NOT LEAST small zip lock bags to put the soiled diapers into and trash bags to put those bags into. Containment of odor is paramount and zip locks will help stall bacterial infections. Remember they have no trash service nor dump to put items in, they have to be contained. Moms and girls need feminine care items. We found these were the most forgotten items and they will certainly be appreciated. I know powdered milk is not choice but it is non-perishable and works in
    difficult times.

    posted by ElaineMc at 8:42 PM on May 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


    I grew up in Tulsa, and I have a vague memory of the '74 tornado (which would be remarkable given I wasn't even 2 yet) going a few miles west of us.

    So you see Joplin... it's something else. It's heartbreaking.

    As for all the "why aren't the houses tornado-proof" arguments, on the one hand, it's really pretty insulting, along the lines of the comment earlier about why wasn't the Lower Ninth built on stilts.

    On the other hand, it really doesn't make any sense why you don't see more tornado resistant homes in Tornado Alley. They're really not that much more expensive -- ICF homes are $1-4 more per square foot than wood frame -- though they can have problems with moisture. Alternatively, there's the safe room. This picture from the Tuscaloosa storms stands out to me. Note how the safe room is still there even though the house is wiped out. The family survived without injury.

    More notably, look what they're walking on top of -- cinder block. Unreinforced masonry ain't worth crap against an EF4. Don't believe me? Watch. They're shooting boards at 200mph clean through brick walls.
    posted by dw at 9:17 PM on May 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


    Of course, the third option is the fraidy hole, aka the in-ground storm shelter. They're usually either cast-in-place concrete structures or a metal capsule sunk into the ground. Double as root cellars. Given that in Oklahoma is mostly clay soils that shrink and expand with drought, it's not a good place for basements, but a fraidy hole is fine in it.
    posted by dw at 9:22 PM on May 23, 2011


    The number / severity of tornadoes on each continent doesn't seem to be a relevant variable in that comparison, other than to suggest that Europeans might be over cautious, since they're building stronger homes, although their risk of tornadoes (and similar catastrophic weather events) is comparatively much lower.

    I'm wondering if it's not so much catastrophic weather risk as the memory of two World Wars?

    dw, that safe room photo is amazing. I don't think one could find a more persuasive argument for incorporating such a space into a new construction in an at-risk area, or retrofitting something where possible. FEMA has info on building a safe room.
    posted by taz at 10:21 PM on May 23, 2011


    The comments that started the discussion on tornado-proofing homes came from schmod.

    Schmod sugggested adopting improved bulding codes in Tornado Alley here.

    valkyryn's response: Way to provide a realistic, viable housing option for the majority of Midwesterners who, under your rules, would not be able to afford to live anywhere in the Midwest.

    Amendments to building codes do not have to be applied retroactively - that is, they can be applied to new construction, while grandfathering existing structures. With increased construction cost estimates of between 1% and 40% (1% coming from dw's link on ICF homes and 40% coming from valkyryn's seemingly 'quick and dirty' calculation), it would seem that, in reality, adopting building codes that require new construction to be 'tornado-proof' is not a completely unrealistic option.

    If it's true that ICF home construction costs between 0% and 8% more than wood-frame construction, you're talking about reducing the size of your house by between 0 and 7.5% in order to have a 'tornado-proof' structure at the same price as a wood-frame house, and you'll end up with a more durable and energy efficient house, to boot.

    Even at valkyryn's much higher estimate, a reduction in house size of 28% (which may seem extreme, but, when compared to average housing unit size in Europe, is obviously liveable), will get you into a much safer structure.

    Or build your safe room for $8,000 and make your $200K house 4% smaller than it would have been without a safe room.

    In short, it doesn't seem, in reality, that requiring new construction to be nominally 'tornado-proof' is really going to price most Midwesterners out of the housing market.

    I'll leave you with a quote on ICF home construction, from this link:
    Jeff Barber, a registered architect and University of Missouri Extension housing and environmental design specialist in Lamar, Missouri says: "In the extension offices, after a tornado hits, we'll spend days, even weeks, answering the question 'What can I do to protect my family against a tornado?' This is one of the things we suggest...Besides being safer, properly designed ICF buildings are more fire resistant, more durable and much more energy efficient."
    posted by syzygy at 1:53 AM on May 24, 2011


    Sorry for the link fail - fixed links here:
    Initial comment from schmod
    schmod's building codes suggestion
    valkyryn's response
    dw's response, including info on ICF construction
    posted by syzygy at 2:13 AM on May 24, 2011


    syzygy writes "1% coming from dw's link on ICF homes"

    That link says 1-4 dollars per square foot not 1%. Price multipliers usually start around 3% for ICFs with experienced crews and you only get the low end when building custom housing. For tract housing where there is less advantage from reusing forms and fewer whacky floor plans1 the multiplier is higher. Also keep in mind when looking at ICF costs that cheaper systems use a grid wall system instead of a flat slab. The concrete isn't a solid plane instead resembling a waffle or screen. Grid wall systems do not provide adequate protection from debris blown by a tornado because much of the structure of the wall is nothing more than a 8" thickness of foam. And flat wall ICFs are only R-17ish2 which quite a step up from a 2X4 fibreglass wall is merely equivalent to a 2X6 fibreglass wall and well behind several advanced framing techniques. For example the double offset stud walls in my shop are nominally around R-30 and are thinner than the 6" ICF foundation wall they sit on.

    Note that ICFs by themselves won't tornado proof your home. You are still at risk through any hole cast into your walls (windows, dorrs, etc), you still have to make sure your house won't slip off it's foundation (usually a no brainer but possible to screw up) and you still have to secure your roof. It's a good start but not a universal cure.

    Also get struck by the right storm and everything outside the centre concrete section of the walls is likely to be damaged or scoured away; it's just foam after all. Good for the people inside but still requiring extensive repair though less than a stick frame house blown apart.

    1: ICFs are common in custom homes because they handle weird shapes, especially curves, and short choppy walls a lot easier than stick framing. The cheapest stick framed houses are a single rectangle or maybe two stuck together where the walls are some neat division of 4' long.
    2: (the R-50 numbers you'll sometimes see are 99.9% marketing bullshit only quasi legitimate (IE Actually not at all) in very specific climates where wild temperature swings around room temperature are a daily occurrence. Mostly extreme desert where the fluctuation is between 100F highs and 40F lows occur regularly during a single 24 hour period.

    posted by Mitheral at 3:30 AM on May 24, 2011


    One of the little things that would likely fall through the cracks of the "drown it in the bathtub" type goverment is reservation of ham bands for non commerical uses.

    Possible, but the amateur radio bands are assigned by treaty, which the US is a signatory to, and it's very much to the US's advantage not to abrogate that treaty.
    posted by eriko at 5:37 AM on May 24, 2011


    Also, ham radio operators in the US tend to be fiendish, fiendish conservatives, and any right-wing government would be alienating their base by selling off the ham bands.

    Still, it's a concern. I'm a ham radio operator (got my 20WPM morse code Extra test at 11) and I don't go on the air anymore because of how hostile things get when people like me just speak their minds. If you go to a ham fleamarket/meetup (a "hamfest") it's the same old WW2 and 'Nam vets selling the same overpriced junk back and forth, year in and year out, and the attendance slowly dwindles as people die.

    They say they want to get young people involved, but they don't, really. They want chipper, clean-cut Boy Scouts, kids the Daughters of the American Revolution would be proud of. Hams are tragically unhip- there's so many cool things we could be doing with ham radio, but the existing community is made up of such fascist old farts that the young, creative people aren't jumping on board.

    Eventually the old vets are going to die off, and international treaties or no, you can at least count on the government selling off the VHF and UHF bands, like they already did for UPS about 15 years back. It's a fucking shame.
    posted by dunkadunc at 5:55 AM on May 24, 2011 [4 favorites]


    That safe room photo is amazing. But the door seems to open out - wouldn't that be a bad thing, since it's likely to get blocked by debris if your house blows down? Is there a reason why doors in rooms like that shouldn't open inward?
    posted by rtha at 6:52 AM on May 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


    An object hitting the door has to break the door to enter the safe room if the door swings outward. An object hitting a door that swings inward only has to break the hinges or latches to penetrate the room. See every "Cops" show or similar where two not so burly cops bust down a door with battering ram only travelling as fast as they can swing it.

    Also it allows the room to be smaller or fit more people because you don't have to subtract the door swing from the floor area when figuring occupancy.
    posted by Mitheral at 7:04 AM on May 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


    You are right about debris blocking the door. It's one of the reasons a safe room should have unpowered ventilation: if your house collapses on the room or your neighbour's Buick is blown up against the door you might be there a while.
    posted by Mitheral at 7:08 AM on May 24, 2011


    The Minnesota History Center is a fine, fine place. In one room they built a pretend cinder-block basement, with a TV inside that shows a movie about tornadoes. There's a warning sign outside because the effects, while simple, are so damn disturbing.
    posted by wenestvedt at 7:39 AM on May 24, 2011


    Joplin forecast for tonight: Windy with occasional thunderstorms, possibly severe. Damaging winds, large hail, and possibly a tornado with some storms. Low 69F. Winds SSE at 20 to 30 mph. Chance of rain 70%.

    Tomorrow: Windy with strong thunderstorms likely in the afternoon. Storms may produce large hail and strong winds. High 76F. Winds SSW at 20 to 30 mph. Chance of rain 80%.

    Not good at all.
    posted by futz at 8:05 AM on May 24, 2011


    What people really need is a weather radio and underground shelter. The battery or crank operated radio is crucial for all storms but especially those at night. If the power goes out your TV and computer are useless.

    I live in the ass-end of Tornado Alley, and until last year only loosely enforced our family's storm season plan. Last year, several communities in our area were pretty much flattened and are still rebuilding, and it looks like we'll have more of the same this season. So now the plan is enforced.

    We have a weather radio, a box of candles, flashlights, and spare batteries in the basement, and the pantry down there is well stocked with non-perishables and bottled water. Portable electronics not in use and spare cell phone batteries are plugged in downstairs and left charging, because I don't want to hear complaints about being bored if the power goes out. Cell phones and laptops are to be charged at all times, and no one may leave the house without their cell phone - after last year's tornado that demolished an area high school, the only phones working were cell phones! (If the cell phones are working, that means we have internet, too, since my phone is also a wireless hotspot.)

    Laptop bags all have one week of spare medications, a couple of protein bars, and a bottle of water. If the sirens go, grab your laptop bag and your assigned pet, and get your ass downstairs. The sirens have gone off three times so far this season, so we've even had a little practice with the plan.
    posted by MissySedai at 8:15 AM on May 24, 2011 [9 favorites]


    Those points make good sense, Mitheral. Thanks.

    /will happily stay in earthquake country, because tornadoes are scarier
    posted by rtha at 8:18 AM on May 24, 2011


    Note that ICFs by themselves won't tornado proof your home.

    Right, which is why anyone who sells you a "tornado proof" home is a lying sack o' crap. You can get windows that will handle the scouring of a 200 mph tornado, but those are a hefty premium over even triple pane.

    And yes, ICF isn't the be-all end-all, but it does offer a best of both worlds compromise between the strength of Brutalist cast-in-place or pre-cast and the organic beauty of the wood or brick home of the Mid-South. And even at a $4/sq. ft. premium it will put $8-12K onto the cost of your average Oklahoma home, but the premium of being "tornado resistant" would probably net the builder that and more over the classic stick-frame.

    Thing is, people in Oklahoma don't have fraidy holes or safe rooms for the same reason most California residents don't have earthquake insurance -- it's too expensive for the average middle class home. A central, windowless room like an interior closet or bathroom will give most people enough protection to ride out an EF2 without fatality. It's when you get up into EF4/EF5 territory that being anywhere but a safe room or a fraidy hole will get you killed.
    posted by dw at 8:37 AM on May 24, 2011


    will happily stay in earthquake country, because tornadoes are scarier

    Heh. I've lived in Tornado Alley and I live in Cascadia. Give me tornadoes any day over earthquakes -- at least you get 5-20 minutes' warning.
    posted by dw at 8:39 AM on May 24, 2011


    We have a weather radio, a box of candles, flashlights, and spare batteries in the basement, and the pantry down there is well stocked with non-perishables and bottled water

    Good plan. Make sure to rotate out the food and batteries -- just set an annual date, I'd go with the Memorial Day/Labor Day that firefighers use to remind you to change the batteries in the smoke detectors.

    Finally, a portable jump battery with 12V car power port (what we used to call the cigarette lighter jack) and/or a USB port can charge lots of things, and the same with a small inverter can charge anything. A big 12V battery can run lots of modern electronics for a very long time.
    posted by eriko at 8:49 AM on May 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


    TWC: Updated: May 24, 2011 2:30 pm ET
    Sadly, given the events in Joplin, Mo. and Minneapolis this past weekend, we are not through with severe weather this week. Not by a longshot.

    The ingredients are in place for a classic Plains tornado outbreak Tuesday. First, we have a screencast discussing how this setup compares to the infamous May 3, 1999 tornado outbreak. Then, we'll highlight the area of greatest risk, then step through why this is the case.

    posted by futz at 12:13 PM on May 24, 2011


    Looks like the greatest risk is for KS, MO, and OK.
    posted by futz at 12:15 PM on May 24, 2011


    Any Missouri Alums/fans interested in helping out might be interested in this T-shirt.
    posted by schyler523 at 3:53 PM on May 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


    Satellite images from April tornados.
    posted by drezdn at 4:51 PM on May 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


    How Did "Tornado Alley" Get Its Name?
    posted by homunculus at 5:10 PM on May 24, 2011


    I think this Flickr set hasn't been posted yet - it's pretty incredible, some panoramic and before-and-after shots that are just heartbreaking.
    posted by naoko at 8:25 PM on May 24, 2011 [3 favorites]


    I just saw that, too, naoko. It's so surreal, and terrible.
    posted by rtha at 9:13 PM on May 24, 2011


    Denning, Arkansas has been destroyed by a tornado.
    posted by dirigibleman at 12:23 AM on May 25, 2011


    The picture in that set of the Walgreens on Main Street was weirdly comforting for me - it's the first picture I've seen of Joplin so far where I can actually recognize a landmark, rather than it looking like something from a totally different planet.
    And now Arkansas. Damn.
    posted by naoko at 1:07 AM on May 25, 2011


    Well, yep. My old apartment was wiped from the map at 20th and Connecticut.
    posted by Atreides at 3:11 PM on May 25, 2011


    Before and After Aerial photographs via the NY Times.
    posted by Atreides at 4:49 PM on May 25, 2011


    Dunno if anyone's still reading, but my brother's friend was found dead either last night or this morning. I'm not clear as to where he was found or if they "he was seen in a hospital" thing ended up being totally false or what. Just heartbreaking.
    posted by naoko at 6:03 AM on May 28, 2011


    Very sorry to hear that, naoko.
    posted by LobsterMitten at 9:49 AM on May 28, 2011


    I'm very sorry, naoko.
    posted by Atreides at 6:26 AM on May 29, 2011


    Today will mark the arrival of President Obama and a protest by the Westboro Baptist Church.

    From accounts on facebook, there's going to be a counter protest agaisnt the Westboro people, as well the presence of some of the bikers who make an active job of screening them off from the suffering at funerals. There could be violence, as Joplin ain't quite the city to happily host people celebrating the deaths of their family, friends, and neighbors.
    posted by Atreides at 6:31 AM on May 29, 2011


    Official death toll raised to 138.
    posted by Atreides at 5:17 PM on June 2, 2011


    Kicked out for doing good: Hastings man who volunteered on scene of north Minneapolis tornado was thrown out.
    posted by unliteral at 9:11 PM on June 6, 2011


    While the death toll has been raised to 151 in Joplin, a little goodness...emphasis on the little.

    Survivor cat!
    posted by Atreides at 7:35 PM on June 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


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