Eleven years later: Remembering the May 22, 2011 tornado in Joplin
JOPLIN, Mo. (KY3) - More than a decade removed from the tragedy, Joplin commemorates a period filled with pain, pride, and progress.
Sunday marks 11 years since a devastating EF5 tornado swept through Joplin.
The natural disaster shook southwest Missouri, placing the region in the worldwide spotlight. It led to 161 deaths, more than 1,300 injuries, and nearly $3 billion worth of damages. To date, the May 22, 2011 tornado is considered the costliest in United States history.
The twister ravaged through nearly one-third of Joplin city limits, reaching peak speeds in excess of 200 mph. It covered 22 miles of ground in Jasper and Newton counties over 38 minutes.
A closer look at the history-making tornado’s path:
It wasn’t the first time violent tornadoes rolled through the region. Two twisters hit Joplin in the early 1970′s, contributing to four deaths and more than 100 injuries. A storm system from 1973 produced gusts up to 100 mph, causing more than $20 million in property damage at the time, according to a historic Joplin report from June 2011.
Joplin is considered to be just on the outskirts of “Tornado Alley,” a region in the central United States known to produce frequent tornadoes from late spring to early fall. States with longer stretches of flatland, such as Kansas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma, are more likely to see life-altering tornadoes. When cold air and warm air meet, these states typically offer favorable conditions to produce tornadoes scaled at EF2 or higher.
The 2011 twister not only embodied characteristics of the “Tornado Alley” region but carried them out to an extent rarely seen in the Midwest. Fewer than one percent of all tornadoes reach EF5 status, while even fewer of those strike populated areas, like Joplin, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The National Weather Service projected the potential for a severe weather system two days in advance, issuing an alert for a hazardous weather outlook on May 20, 2011. Two days later, NWS issued a tornado watch around 1:30 p.m. CT, indicating conditions were favorable for tornadoes in Missouri and three neighboring states.
Cold fronts clashed with warm fronts throughout the afternoon. Meteorologists tracked a supercell thunderstorm forming between southeast Kansas and southwest Missouri, though it wasn’t exactly clear what the storm system would bring into the early evening.
“At one point there were five or six storms all capable of producing [tornadoes], or ones that produced a tornado over in southeast Kansas,” recalls KY3 Chief Meteorologist Ron Hearst. “Two thunderstorms eventually merged just west of Joplin and began producing the mega tornado.”
Fast-forward several hours, storm chasers and spotters reported multiple vortices just west of Joplin city limits. After communicating with emergency officials, the NWS Forecast Office in Springfield issued a tornado warning for Joplin and neighboring communities at 5:17 p.m. CT. This provided most residents with at least 17 minutes of lead time in advance of the tornado, according to an NWS Story Map.
NWS reports the tornado initially hit at 5:34 p.m. on the western edge of Joplin. The twister formed near the junction of State Highway JJ and West 32nd Street. It intensified to catastrophic levels when it officially reached Joplin city limits at 5:41 p.m.
Generations braved the monster storm for more than half an hour before it weakened. NWS reports the tornado dissipated around 6:12 p.m. near the city of Granby, Missouri.
“On the current track, that tornado was headed straight for Springfield,” said Hearst. “By the time I reached the office, the storm had turned right and was headed for Galena. I was glad to see that thing weaken, and the tornado it was producing [after hitting Joplin] was sporadic but no larger than EF2.”
Here’s a look back at some of KY3′s initial reports from the night tragedy struck Joplin, plus around-the-clock coverage into the following night.
TORNADO REACTION AND RESPONSE
Buildings flattened. Trees toppled. Homes destroyed. These scenes were among the few in Joplin that bring back grim memories from the evening of May 22, 2011.
As survivors slowly returned from their shelter, they came back to see their community devastated by miles upon miles of tornado damage.
“I still cannot wrap my mind around the absolute devastation,” said KY3 News Anchor Steve Grant. “It was extraordinarily difficult to find all the right words.”
“I’ve seen damage from many tornadoes throughout the Midwest. The first time in Joplin, I couldn’t believe it,” said KY3 News Anchor Paul Adler. “When you talked to survivors, you could feel the heartbreak they shouldered for those hurt and those who didn’t survive.” Adler says the devastation reminded him of what he witnessed in 2005 when covering Hurricane Katrina for his previous station.
“It was so dark when night fell,” said KY3 On Your Side reporter Ashley Reynolds, who had the initial on-air report for KY3 on May 22, 2011. “All night, we heard loud sirens, search dogs barking and people screaming while they combed through the rubble in hopes of finding their loved ones. People were walking around in shock. The nightmare was real.”
Officials reported 116 deaths from the tornado just one day after it hit, per federal records. The death toll grew to 161 in the long weeks and months that followed.
The National Weather Service and the Federal Emergency Management Agency have also noted these impacts in various reports:
- 1,371 injuries (ranging from abrasions, lacerations, broken bones and dismembered body parts)
- 4,380 homes were destroyed and another 3,884 significantly damaged (8,264 homes impacted)
- 553 business structures destroyed or damaged
- 3 million cubic yards of debris scattered
- 130 transmission poles were damaged (contributing to lengthy power outages)
The tornado ripped through a considerable stretch of Joplin, wiping out nearly one-third of the flagship city for Missouri’s fourth-largest metropolitan area.
“Most tornadoes leave a narrow strip of torn-up lives. You might see destroyed homes on one side of a street and untouched homes on the other,” said Adler. “But in Joplin, you could stand in one spot and do a full turn and only see damage.”
Another look at the tornado path and hardest-hit areas:
It was a time of major need. Response efforts skyrocketed among not only community members, but hundreds of local, state and federal agencies.
On May 23, 2011, one day after the storm, FEMA issued an amendment to offer critical emergency needs for Jasper and Newton counties, including emergency protective measures funding. Former Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon also took swift action, activating the Missouri National Guard for debris removal and signing several executive orders to support Joplin’s recovery efforts.
Within 24 hours of the tornado, more than 800 police cars, 300 ambulances, 400 fire trucks, and 1,100 emergency responders arrived to assist with the tornado response. More than 400 public safety agencies from at least five states made their way to provide mutual aid, according to FEMA. More than 13 federal agencies and 820 FEMA employees helped with the Joplin response and recovery efforts at peak staffing. Then-standing President Barack Obama traveled to Joplin later in May to visit some of the hardest-hit areas and meet with several survivors.
As more help arrived, efforts turned to cleaning up Joplin and searching for survivors.
One day after the tornado hit, authorities rescued 17 people trapped under debris. The Joplin Globe reports some were found nearby their homes, while others were found by businesses such as Home Depot.
Tens of thousands of volunteer organizations fulfilled various tasks to help the Joplin community move forward. As of early-May 2021, the city reported at least 180,000 volunteers had dedicated more than 1.5 million hours of service in tornado response efforts.
KY3 continued coverage several weeks after the tornado, learning stories of community members, authorities, and volunteers who stepped up in tornado cleanup and the search for survivors.
REBUILDING, RECOVERY AND COSTS
The twister not only destroyed thousands of homes, but several community landmarks and notable buildings that offered essential services. Some of the hardest hit sites include:
- St. John’s Regional Medical Center: Mercy’s medical site in Joplin suffered extensive damage, ranging from busted windows and interior walls to piles of debris in the parking lot. Hundreds of staff and patients were inside the hospital when it took a direct hit. The hospital, which opened in 1896, lost power while the tornado ripped through Joplin. Five patients died in the aftermath while surviving patients were sent to Mercy’s hospitals in Springfield and northwest Arkansas for treatment. Mercy demolished the St. John’s Regional Medical Center in 2013 and opened its new location along Interstate 44 in 2015.
- Joplin High School: The twister blew through ten schools in the Joplin School District. Six of them, including Joplin High School, were considered a total loss. From ripped-off roofs to flattened support structures, the tornado wiped out many sections of the high school. Open fields and parking lots were covered by piles of boards, limbs, steel beams, fencing and other materials. The Joplin School District notes the storm caused financial damages of more than $100 million to its schools. The high school also held its graduation ceremony for the 2011 class at Missouri Southern State University just a few hours before tragedy struck.
- St. Mary’s Catholic Church: Nearly leveled upon impact, St. Mary’s Catholic Church may have taken a hard hit while the tornado neared peak intensity. The church was located a few blocks away from the St. John’s Regional Medical Center, and very little of it remained standing after the storm ripped through it. Perhaps symbolic of hope through tragedy, a steel cross stayed put in its original spot. The Joplin Globe reports that the cross has been preserved, while St. Mary’s was able to open a new church location in December 2014.
- Range Line Road Businesses: Many business owners lost their stores from the twister, either temporarily or permanently. Dozens of retailers along Range Line Road, a busy commercial section, were faced with a challenging decision on whether to rebuild or move out. Businesses such as Academy Sports, Home Depot, and Walmart ended up with notable damage. The storm system even powered through larger sites, such as a Pepsi distribution center and Cummins generator building. More than 80 percent of businesses damaged by the storms have since been rebuilt and reopened, per city records.
The net result: $2.8 billion in losses citywide due to tornado damage. According to federal records, the Joplin tornado is the costliest on record and one of only three in United States history to exceed $2 billion in adjusted-value losses.
Losses included $1.3 billion in commercial property, $554 million in residential property and $51 million in private vehicles, among other damages, according to 2012 figures from the Missouri Department of Insurance. Insurance companies paid out an estimated $2.2 billion to cover most tornado losses, though payouts were capped in August 2011, per Joplin Globe reports.
Joplin has also relied on other sources of funding in its recovery efforts. Within a year of the tornado, the city had raised $39 million for short-term and long-term recovery efforts. The Community Foundation of the Ozarks, American Red Cross and Salvation Army all made significant donations ahead of the one-year anniversary mark.
Fast-forward to Jan. 2015, the Community Foundation of Southwest Missouri disbursed nearly $5.5 million through the Joplin Tornado Fund. The fund consisted of several donations, ranging from money collected at children’s lemonade stands to $500,000 donated by celebrity couple Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.
Some costs were still being crunched as recently as last year. A federal report presented to the Joplin City Council in Feb. 2020 stated that the city had paid $2.1 million for its share of costs associated with the 2011 tornado damage. The report outlined numbers tied to FEMA projects, insurance pay-outs, volunteer dollars and cleanup of city properties.
City cleanup costs totaled $19.1 million, and the Joplin community was responsible for covering roughly 12 percent of that total. The city’s finance director says disaster assistance from FEMA has since been closed out, though some projects were not fully reimbursable, the Joplin Globe reports.
Countless community members and agencies have been tasked with rebuilding the Joplin community over the past decade and allocating the funds to make it happen.
- Building permits: More than $1.8 billion was invested into construction and more than 1,200 building permits were issued in each of the first nine years after the tornado.
- Houses: Joplin built more than 1,600 homes by the time the community marked the fifth anniversary of the storm in 2016. On average, crews completed nearly one new house per day during that stretch.
- Jobs: More than 450 businesses rebuilt and reopened doors, retaining around 9,000 jobs. New businesses have helped the city add nearly another 2,000 full-time and part-time jobs.
- Public Infrastructure: In the long-term, the city looks to replace or lay new asphalt on 35% of city streets. The city has also prepared to replace more than 800,000 feet of sidewalks, repair thousands of feet of sewer lines and install 25,000 new trees.
- Recovery Efforts: The Joplin Redevelopment Corporation identified more than 50 acres of land for major redevelopment projects, including the Joplin Public Library, multiple fire stations, several schools and a senior citizen center.
- Population: Steady growth over the last decade. The city reported more than 1,000 new residents from 2010 to 2015. Joplin is now home to more than 51,500 residents, per 2020 U.S. Census figures.
KY3 has frequently reported on funding and community rebuilding efforts over the years, including some recovery plans and memorials in the making as early as 2012.
Tornado research has surged since the massive twister in 2011. Engineers, meteorologists and social scientists have published hundreds of peer-reviewed studies about tornadoes in recent years.
A research study from 2017, based on the 2011 Joplin tornado, says that seismometers used to measure earthquakes might also help determine the wind speed of tornadoes in real-time. The research from Cal-Santa Barbara concludes that seismometers located near the May 2011 Joplin tornado showed that the seismic waves matched the estimated wind speeds.
In the past, authorities had to look over damage reports after a twister has passed to determine its intensity. The National Weather Service says such research could be important to relay real-time information more quickly to the general public.
“As scientists, we are going to use anything we can get our hands on to confirm the threat,” explained Steve Runnels, the warning coordinator for Springfield’s National Weather Service. “What the social scientists have told us, if we get that information in the hands of the people in the path of that storm, they’ll recognize that this is a storm they cannot fool with, and they’ll take shelter immediately.”
A NOAA survey notes some people did not immediately or adequately seek shelter during the 2011 tornado. Social scientists say it takes certain people longer to process the conditions and when to find shelter. With an average tornado warning time of ten minutes before such conditions hit, that could mean the difference between life and death.
The National Weather Service has learned more about severe weather preparedness since the 2011 tornado. The agency says there’s a need to push out more information about the seriousness of a storm and disseminate information to the public faster.
“Perhaps the greatest thing that the weather service has done since the Joplin tornado is go to an impact-based warning system,” Runnels said. “We will tell you if the warning is radar-based or if a spotter has confirmed a tornado on the ground, and if it’s a weak tornado versus a very powerful tornado.”
Within a month of the tornado, the Joplin Globe reported dozens of people were inside their homes when they died from the tornado. The report determined the location of death for 106 people, stating that 54 percent of deaths happened to people taking shelter or attempting to take shelter in their homes.
Following this research, city leaders considered requiring all new homes in Joplin to have a basement. Instead, they settled on making sure all new homes have “hurricane ties,” otherwise known as fasteners to make homes more secure and resistant to high winds.
Experts are pushing for continued research on the 2011 twister, which has contributed to some strides in tornado preparedness.
“I think that learning to shelter people and better community preparedness has taken great leaps forward,” said KY3 Chief Meteorologist Ron Hearst. “Keep in mind that both the Joplin and Tuscaloosa tornadoes [in 2011] represented a large loss of life and happened in different parts of the country. The thinking was if it can happen in places outside of traditional Tornado Alley, then maybe it can happen anywhere.”
As new Joplin tornado-centric research has emerged, KY3 has reported on its significance and how it could help families make life-saving decisions.
REMEMBERING THE TORNADO
Memories from the Joplin tornado are still vivid in the minds of current and former southwest Missouri residents. Many have spent the past decade replacing what can be replaced and remembering all that was lost.
KY3 recently turned to social media last year to ask viewers about their memories from the May 22, 2011 tornado, particularly how they helped with response efforts and how the tornado changed their perspective on severe weather.
“That was a year of all hands on deck, the entire year, to make sure that Missouri could be rebuilt and move forward again,” said former Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon in a 2016 KY3 interview. Three years earlier, Gov. Nixon noted in a KY3 interview, “Joplin is an inspiration for our country.”
Dr. Sean Smith, an emergency doctor working in Joplin during the 2011 twister, shared his experience with KY3 several years later. He recalls several hardships in treating injured patients, particularly because the storms had destroyed the St. John’s Mercy Regional Medical Center.
“There are days, that almost seem like, ‘Was that real?,’” said Dr. Smith to KY3 in 2016. “It seems almost surreal at this point, but I hope people take heed. We don’t need another loss on that scale for people to realize this is real.”
Community members vowed to rebuild bigger and better than before. Around 450 businesses had rebuilt and reopened within five years of tragedy, roughly 85 percent of ones impacted by the tornado, according to the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce.
Joplin has added another 260 businesses over the past decade, giving the city more businesses than it had ten years ago.
“It is nice to see the community come back and flourish and actually become better than what it was at the time,” said Rob O’Brian, President of Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce in 2016. “It is very difficult in a large-scale disaster to get all those companies back.”
The National Disaster Photo Rescue collected and saved roughly 35,000 photos strewn in debris from the May 2011 Joplin tornado. In 2013, nearly half of them were returned to families who lost the photos in the storm. Others have since been archived at the Joplin Museum Complex.
Former President Barack Obama marked the tornado’s one-year anniversary by speaking to graduates from the Joplin High School Class of 2012.
“America only succeeds when we all pitch in and pull together, and I’m counting on you to be leaders in that effort,” said Obama in his commencement speech. “Because you are from Joplin, and you’ve already defied the odds.”
Joplin will commemorate the 10-year anniversary with a series of events this weekend, including Saturday, May 22, the exact date marking a decade since the tornado.
The Joplin Memorial Run, canceled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, returns on Saturday. Organizers say the event honors those who died from the tornado and aims to provide hope for the Joplin community.
Another gathering is planned for Saturday afternoon at Cunningham Park. An observance ceremony will mark the moment from 2011 to honor and remember loved ones. Speakers will read the names of the 161 victims who died, while the remembrance ceremony will also offer a moment of prayer and music.
Joplin Mayor Ryan Stanley and former Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon are expected to speak after a brief observance ceremony. Community members are encouraged to visit Cunningham Park around 3 p.m. Saturday before the remembrance ceremony begins around 5:15 p.m.
While ten years have passed, people are still working to come to terms with what happened in Joplin on the night of May 22, 2011. All in all, the last decade has proven to be a time of heartache, yet hope for the Joplin community.
“That night will never be a distant memory in my mind,” said KY3 On Your Side reporter Ashley Reynolds. “Sometimes, when you’ve been knocked down, you must kneel to get back up. Ten years later, folks are standing strong, thanks to prayers, faith and community support.”
”The horrible storm was long gone, yet there was hope and determination were in the faces of the survivors,” said KY3 News Anchor Steve Grant. “We will always remember the most terrible day in Joplin’s history, as well as its comeback.”
KY3 won a Regional Edward R. Murrow Award for breaking news coverage of the tornado in 2012. Here’s one final look back at some of KY3′s coverage of the 2011 Joplin tornado:
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