Historic Tornado Series: April 27th Tornado Outbreak & Joplin EF-5

2011 was a tornado season for the record book. Monster storms plagued much of the Midwest and South Eastern United States with severe weather and killer tornadoes. An astounding number of lives changed forever as a result of this unprecedented past severe weather season. In the coming years, there will be a number of articles, books and documentaries released that will revisit different aspects of the 2011 tornado season.  I would like to submit my contribution.

April 2011 Tornado Outbreak

As a storm chaser, I wait with unbridled anticipation for the spring severe weather season. My passion for understanding the power of nature in its purest form has always come with an understanding that with this power also brings death and destruction. I, along with all other storm chasers, watched in horror as these tornadoes claimed the lives of men, women and children in the spring of 2011. Unfortunately, this was the tornado season I feared was inevitable. The number of stories relating to the 2011 tornado season could fill multiple books, and each is unique. I will cover the tornado outbreak occurring the week of April 27th, and the Joplin tornado as these were the most devastating storms from the most devastating tornado season in at least 30 years.  I will then review some basic tornado information.

Throughout the week of April 25th-28th, 2011, an unparalleled tornado outbreak swept throughout the South Eastern United States, causing cataclysmic destruction.

April 2011 Tornado Outbreak

An unfortunate series of meteorological ingredients blended to create an explosive tornado environment. Instability resulting from a cold front plowing into warm humid air lingering over the South Eastern US aided by a powerful jet stream providing spin resulted in a super tornado outbreak not seen since 1974.
This event would produce some 353 tornadoes that caused 346 deaths and left an immeasurable amount of damage to affected regions. Perhaps the most notable tornado from this outbreak occurred in Alabama on April 27th.

Tuscaloosa Alabama Tornado

This monster tornado was caught on film by multiple television stations as it marched across the city of Tuscaloosa, and later Birmingham. Many watched in awe as secondary or multiple vortices snaked from the ominous black core as it churned across the city.  This giant EF4 wedge tornado left a path of damage more than 80 miles long, and was measured to reach widths of more than one and a half miles wide.  Film evidence shows the monstrous storm tearing through factories and metropolitan areas alike, leaving 43 people dead and more than 1,000 injured.  Although the Tuscaloosa tornado was not the strongest tornado to strike that day, it has become the visual stamp of this fateful week. The 24-hour-period from 8:00 a.m. April 27 to 8:00 a.m. April 28 would be the fifth deadliest tornado day in United States history.

Tuscaloosa Alabama Tornado

States of Emergency were declared in Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee and Oklahoma.  The destructive weather and subsequent flooding forced President Obama to declare a federal state of emergency in Alabama.  The series of storms would leave entire cities and regions without power.  Largely affected were the customers of the Tennessee Valley Authority, which lost most of the power on their grid as destructive weather and winds left transmission towers damaged.

April 2011 Tornado Outbreak

Less than a month after the super outbreak in the South Eastern United States, the epic tornado season would produce yet another tragedy that left many in shock. The city of Joplin, a small town in Missouri near the border of Oklahoma and Kansas would be struck by a EF 5 tornado on May 22nd 2011.

Joplin Tornado

Although severe weather events are a common occurrence in Joplin, the residents were not prepared for the destructive EF5 wedge tornado that ravaged the city from 5:34pm to 6:12pm on that fateful day. The tornado had a base estimated at one mile wide, blasting winds estimated at 200 to 250 miles per hour, and left a path of destruction that would total some $3 billion. Sadly, an estimated 161 lives were lost in the Joplin tornado alone.

Joplin Tornado

The St. John’s Regional Medical Center in Joplin endured a direct hit from the tornado, and Dr Kevin Kikta was on duty that day. Below is an excerpt from Dr Kevin Kikta’s personal blog recalling that day. A link to the full blog is listed below.

“At 5:42 pm a security guard yelled to everyone, “Take cover! We are about to get hit by a tornado!” I ran with a pregnant RN, Shilo Cook, while others scattered to various places, to the only place that I was familiar with in the hospital without windows, a small doctor’s office in the ED. Together, Shilo and I tremored and huddled under a desk.

Joplin Tornado Damage

We heard a loud horrifying sound like a large locomotive ripping through the hospital.  The whole hospital shook and vibrated as we heard glass shattering, light bulbs popping, walls collapsing, people screaming,  the ceiling caving in above us, and water pipes breaking, showering water down on everything.  We suffered this in complete darkness, unaware of anyone else’s status, worried, scared. We could feel a tight pressure in our heads as the tornado annihilated the hospital and the surrounding area.  The whole process took about 45 seconds, but seemed like eternity. The hospital had just taken a direct hit from a category EF5 tornado”.

The 2011 tornado season could be a once in a lifetime event. We may or may never see (in our lifetime) such a destructive set of circumstance come together as was witnessed in the spring of 2011. We do however know that each spring tornadoes will strike. Some will be weak only affecting rural areas of the Great Plains, but some will be strong, deadly and affect urban areas. Much of the public is fascinated by tornadoes, but many do not understand these killer storms. What is a tornado?  Where does a tornado form? What can I do to protect myself?

A tornado is a violent, dangerous, rotating column of air that is in contact with both the surface of the earth and a cumulonimbus cloud or, in rare cases, the base of a cumulus cloud.

How does a tornado form?

Tornadoes have appeared everywhere on earth save Antarctica, are most common in North America and are especially common in the United States. Tornadoes in the U.S. are most likely to occur in a block of land in the middle of the country, from about North Dakota to mid-Texas. This area of land is often referred to as Tornado Alley. Texas gets the most tornadoes per year, followed by Kansas and Oklahoma. On average 1300 tornadoes are recorded in the U.S. every year and kill about 60 people.

How many tornadoes

Tornadoes can’t really be predicted and can only be minimally prepared for. Powerful ones routinely uproot even large trees, toss cars around, destroy buildings and leave behind so much debris that roads and railroads are impassable. Some tornadoes are weak and may be only a few feet across, while large tornadoes can span a mile or more in width and travel hundreds of miles on the ground. However, most tornadoes are about 500 feet wide, are in contact with the ground for about five miles and only last about ten minutes or less, though if a person’s in the path of one, that’s a very long time! Most tornadoes arrive late in the afternoon or the early evening. Generally, they move from west to east, but some have been known to switch direction, or even double back on themselves. Peak season in the U.S. is from April to July, but tornadoes have been recorded at all times of the year.

Fujita Scale

There are a few species of tornadoes. Multi-vortex tornadoes have more than one funnel that swirl around a common center. Waterspouts occur over water, and land spouts are associated with storms that aren’t as strong and land spouts don’t last as long as classic tornadoes. For all its weakness, a land spout can still do considerable damage. It’s easy enough to see tornadoes coming, if it’s visible in the first place. Some tornadoes aren’t visible due to being wrapped in rain, or they come at night where they are difficult to see. Most people hear tornadoes only when they are dangerously close and describe the noise as being like a freight train rumbling by at close range. If a person sees a tornado approaching they should immediately seek shelter.

Tornado Safety

If you are outdoors you should lie in the nearest ditch or piece of land that is lowest in elevation with your arms over your head. If you are indoors, you should take shelter in a basement or the lowest level of the structure. If there is no basement, you can take shelter in the most interior room available such as under stairs or in a bathroom. Some people believe that the doors and windows facing away from the storm should be opened to equalize air pressure, this is false. Taking precious time to open windows will likely get you killed. Many of these old wives tales are still believed to be true and have been perpetuated by the internet. If you are in a vehicle as a tornado approaches, never try to out run the storm. You should evacuate your car immediately and locate the nearest ditch to take shelter in. Never seek shelter under an over pass, as the tornado passes the overpass will create a wind tunnel and you could be sucked out. Mobile homes are not able to withstand even the weakest tornado and should also be evacuated as the tornado approaches.  Every home and business should have an emergency plan in place in the event that a tornado warning is issued. In the event that the electricity has gone out, it is advised that each home and business should own a battery operated weather radio.  This type of radio is inexpensive and can be purchased at any electronics store. Always take a tornado watch and a tornado warning seriously.  A tornado watch means the environment exists for the development of tornadoes. A tornado warning means that a funnel or tornado is visible via radar or eye witness and is moving towards your location.

Tornado Watch

In hindsight, the tornado events of 2011 have brought tornado safety to a new light, but the average lead time on a tornado warning is a paltry 13 minutes. As technology and awareness grows it is believed that this warning lead time can be increased. We still do not fully understand tornadoes, and storm chasers, meteorologists and scientists are working feverishly to get a better  idea of why these monsters can  leave one block unscathed while destroying the next.  As fascinated as I am with tornadoes and weather, I do not enjoy the death and destruction that they bring.

Zach Roberts

Zach Roberts

Owner/Storm Chaser/Photographer at Mr Twister
Hello and welcome my fellow photography and weather enthusiasts! I hope you enjoy my website and my photography. Nothing else in the world compares to seeing the beauty of mother nature in person, and I truly enjoying sharing my passion with you.
Zach Roberts

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