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In Joplin, Mo., Tornado Destruction ‘Looks Like an Artillery Barrage’

May 23, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
In Joplin, Mo., search and rescue efforts continue after a tornado tore through the heart of the city, claiming at least 116 lives. Gwen Ifill discusses the destruction with KRPS Public Radio's Tim Metcalf and learns more about this deadly tornado season from the National Weather Service's Greg Carbin.
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GWEN IFILL: Workers continued search and rescue efforts in Joplin, Mo., tonight, after a tornado tore through the heart of the city, with winds in excess of 190 miles per hour. At least 116 people were killed and more than 2,000 buildings were destroyed.

The devastating tornado carved a path six miles long and more than half-a-mile wide straight through the center of Joplin. The scope of the damage was staggering. The twister decimated entire neighborhoods, splintered huge trees and tossed cars atop one another in a metal jumble.

MAN: One minute, it was just barely sprinkling. The next minute, boy, just — the whole world was just upside-down.

MAN: I was actually planning on helping where it was really torn up, but there’s nothing really to help. It’s just flattened. There’s — I don’t know. It’s probably three-quarters-of-a-mile of nothing.

GWEN IFILL: According to local officials, more than a quarter of the city, home to 50,000 residents, was damaged.

Mark Rohr is Joplin’s city manager.

MARK ROHR, Joplin, Mo.: This tornado went through a major residential part of our city and damaged a large commercial district in the Rangeline area of the city before it moved out of Joplin. We are pulling together in our emergency operations center to ensure that our citizens are safe and informed as we go through this tragedy.

GWEN IFILL: Many of the storm’s victims would normally have been taken to St. John’s Regional Medical Center. But the hospital took a direct hit in the storm. Hundreds of windows in the nine-story building were simply blown out, forcing more than 300 patients to be evacuated to other facilities.

The destruction also spawned gas leaks that triggered a number of fires. Mo. Gov. Jay Nixon has declared a state of emergency. Search-and-rescue crews fanned out across Joplin today, combing the rubble for survivors who might still be trapped.

Fire Chief Mitch Randles was among those whose home was destroyed.

MITCH RANDLES, Joplin, Mo.: It’s very important that we get them out of their entrapments as quick as we can. And, you know, we have got to worry about getting them the basics, the food and water, and getting them out of those areas where they’re trapped in.

GWEN IFILL: But their efforts were hampered by a new storm battering the region today, bringing with it strong winds, downpours and hail the size of quarters.

This spring has seen one of the deadliest tornado outbreaks in decades, claiming the lives of hundreds of people across the South in the last two months alone, including more than 30 in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

The tornado that ripped through Joplin was one of 68 reported twisters over the weekend. Funnel clouds also touched down in seven other Midwestern states, from Oklahoma to Wisconsin. The small eastern Kansas town of Reading was one of those hit.

SHARON WATSON, Kansas Emergency Management: There is no power and there’s no power in the town. So it just makes conditions really difficult and especially at night, with the safety hazards that we might have in the area. It was a devastating day for many of them. They came and saw that their homes had been ripped apart, that, in some cases, the home is completely gone. In other cases, it’s just a mess and they have a lot to do to clean it up.

GWEN IFILL: At least two people died in northern Minneapolis, where the force of the tornado even blew railroad cars off their tracks. But local officials there warned the death toll could still rise.

TIM DOLAN, Minneapolis police chief: We’re still going house to house and checking. We have got a lot of large trees on top of houses. It’s — it’s quite a mess.

GWEN IFILL: More violent weather is expected across the nation’s midsection through the middle of this week.

Now, for more on the view from the ground in Joplin, I spoke a short time ago to Tim Metcalf, program director for KRPS Public Radio, which serves parts of Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. He lives in Joplin.

Tim, thanks for joining us.

Can you start by telling us where you were when the storms hit?

TIM METCALF, KRPS Radio: I was at home, which is about three blocks southeast of the — probably the southernmost devastated line of the city of Joplin. So, my home is relatively unscathed.

GWEN IFILL: So, tell — tell us how you knew what was happening and what you had to do.

TIM METCALF: Well, I had been following weather reports on TV and on the radio. And the sirens had been going off for quite some time.

I had been walking around my home looking out the windows. I noticed that the patio doors in my house, the glass patio doors, were starting to bow. So, I decided it was time to take shelter. And I did so in a closet with one of my dogs. And it was quite a harrowing experience, a lot of noise, a lot of rain, a lot of hail. It lasted maybe five minutes, maybe 10 minutes.

GWEN IFILL: And so, by the time you came out of that closet and you emerged and walked around or drove around, if you were able, your neighborhood, what did you see? I’m seeing what’s behind you, and it’s kind of amazing.

TIM METCALF: It’s extremely amazing.

Well, when I walked outside of my neighborhood, I saw some trees down, some minimal damage to my neighborhood. But, soon thereafter, a family member came and picked me up after he heard that it was — the storm was pretty much centered near my neighborhood. He was worried about me. And he picked me up and we drove back through Joplin north.

And that’s when three blocks into the drive, we saw this. And it left me speechless. We didn’t really talk to each other all the way to our destination, because we were just speechless.

GWEN IFILL: And tell us what you saw. Everything — well, the pictures we have seen, we use the word devastation, but it sounds like, on the ground, it’s even worse.

TIM METCALF: It is. It looks like an artillery barrage perhaps. We were driving down the street with — it had the smell of natural gas. We saw folks wandering aimlessly, you know, a lot of times, some folks bleeding, others looking for loved ones, family and friends, cars turned over, apartment buildings completely leveled, houses and businesses just flattened.

GWEN IFILL: Is there power? Are there utilities? Are there city services?

TIM METCALF: There are a few city services. There’s power in some parts of the city.

The water service is diminished. They — they have lost a good deal of pressure at the water plant. So, there’s a boil-water order right now. Other than that, it’s — there aren’t many services.

GWEN IFILL: In the wake of this, as you walked around yesterday and drove around, and as you have been there today, what are — is it chaotic or is it quiet? What — how are people reacting?

TIM METCALF: Maybe a little bit of both. I think there are folks who are just in shock of what has happened.

You drive down the street. And, normally, where you would see a landmark where you might want to turn somewhere, you don’t see that landmark anymore. So you might have to ask the person with you, “where are we?” That happened with my wife today as we drove around the city.

She asked me several times, where were we? And we had been to those places numerous times.

GWEN IFILL: Have people ever seen anything like this before? Have there been tornadoes even nearby that have been of this magnitude in Joplin?

TIM METCALF: In 2003, I believe, there was a series of tornadoes just a little bit north of Joplin that did a good deal of devastation. I have recently learned that the tornado that was nearest this one’s magnitude was, I think, in the early to mid-’50s. So, it’s been a good deal of time.

GWEN IFILL: Today, there was another line of storms. It was more hail. It doesn’t look like the sun is exactly shining where you were. How unnerving was this second round of storms?

TIM METCALF: Right.

Well, it was unnerving, and it continues to be unnerving, because there’s a good deal of lightning and thunder and rain right now.

And I think folks, understandably, are gun-shy when they hear that thunder and the cloud — the sky goes dark. So, I think it’s that — but people are skittish right now.

GWEN IFILL: Tim Metcalf, thank you so much for joining us.

TIM METCALF: Well, thank you for having me.

GWEN IFILL: In just a few weeks, this tornado season has become the deadliest in more than five decades.

We look at this intense storm season with Greg Carbin, meteorologist in charge of warning coordination for the National Weather Service.

Thank you for joining us from Oklahoma City.

How would you characterize, Mr. Carbin, the intensity of this latest tornado?

GREG CARBIN, National Weather Service: Well, the damage we’re seeing this spring is just really unfortunate. And it’s really discouraging to see this day after day as we go through the month of May and into late April, last month from Alabama and Mississippi.

These are violent — rare and violent tornadoes. Thank goodness they’re rare, although you will have argument on that from a few folks in the South and the Midwest this year. But they are very uncommon for the most part. This is the extreme, the most extreme that we know of, as far as atmospheric violence goes.

GWEN IFILL: But is it unusual? Are we seeing more than we would normally see in an April and May? That’s what — it’s hard — it seems that way.

GREG CARBIN: It seems that way only because these events are not that common to begin with.

And, so, we can go many, many years without seeing the level of activity we have seen. And whether there’s actually an increase in this activity or its intensity, we — we just don’t know that yet. We don’t have a long enough record really. The record is pretty short when it comes to atmospheric data on tornadoes.

GWEN IFILL: It seems also to be more deadly. We’re hearing 116, which is a number that we’re — that they just told us this afternoon in Joplin, but also hundreds we saw in Alabama and a few weeks ago and we have seen in Saint Louis. We have seen them touch down all over the place.

The question, I guess, is whether there is a population-density correlation here, whether we’re seeing these tornadoes hit in more populated areas.

GREG CARBIN: Well, clearly, there’s a correlation between population density and the damage we’re seeing. And, in fact, the damage scale for tornado intensity — or the intensity — the Fujita scale that is used is based on the damage that occurs.

And so the higher the rating, the more likely it is you have had a tornado in a significantly populated area, a built-up area. And that’s a trait we see with increasing population, is increasing vulnerability to these types of storms.

GWEN IFILL: Do we know whether — how they rate this storm? We have heard an E-4 tossed around. What does that mean, and does this make that — that level?

GREG CARBIN: Well, meteorologists and engineers will do is look over this devastating damage we see in the Joplin area and determine the wind speeds sort of from a reverse-engineering perspective. They’re going to look at the damage and then determine based on that damage what type of wind speed would be required to produce the level of damage we see.

And so, if an EF-4 tornado were to move there, we’re looking at wind speed levels estimated at 150 to maybe as much as 200 miles an hour. Excess of 200 miles an hour would get an enhanced Fujita rating of a 5.

GWEN IFILL: So, we always hear about this happening in the South and the Midwest. Those of us on the East Coast and people on the West Coast, very rare to hear about tornadoes touching down.

What is it about that region of the country? Is it humid air? Is the Gulf of Mexico coming up the Mississippi River? What is it that makes — that draws tornadoes to those areas?

GREG CARBIN: The Central United States is unique with respect to topography. The Rocky Mountains to the west and the Gulf of Mexico to the south set up this zone of potential that is especially primed for tornadoes during the springtime months of the year, when we’re transitioning from the cool season, from winter weather systems, into the spring and summer season, where we have warm, moist air coming from the Gulf of Mexico.

And it’s the topography that is established across the middle of the continent that really sets the stage for these types of weather events, again, quite unusual, quite rare, but not something we’re not used to seeing in this part of the country during the spring.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Carbin, when we see that kind of devastation, we wonder whether it was possible to predict. Have we gotten any better at being able to tell when this kind of violent storm is coming?

GREG CARBIN: We have, and the National Weather Service and its offices in the field — there’s an office in Springfield, Mo., that was monitoring this situation, days out. The Storm Prediction Center, we are to tornadoes here like the National Hurricane Center is to hurricanes in Miami.

We’re watching the atmosphere day in and day out for the patterns to become established, and get the word out ahead of these dangerous storms.

And that was done in this case with the forecast models about three days out. And then as the actual storms formed, the offices in Springfield and Wichita went into active warning mode, providing tornado warnings with lead time sometimes upwards of half-an-hour ahead of the most devastating storms.

GWEN IFILL: But, even with that lead time, sometimes there’s only so much you can do to prevent this kind of damage?

GREG CARBIN: Exactly.

And when you’re dealing with a wind speed perhaps as high as 150 miles an hour, there are very few places to hide. But underground, basements and storm shelters certainly provide that protection. But that doesn’t give you a lot of time. Fifteen, 20 minutes to get to that location is not a lot of time to get to safety. And unfortunately some people are caught off guard and unprepared.

GWEN IFILL: And even if you’re prepared, sometimes, when your building falls down around you, there’s not very much you can do about it.

GREG CARBIN: Unless you have got a shelter.

GWEN IFILL: Greg Carbin of the National Weather Service, thank you so much.

GREG CARBIN: Thank you, Gwen.