For many residents of Joplin, Missouri, May 22, 2011, started out like any other Sunday. People attended church services and ate at restaurants with friends and family. Thousands gathered for a high school graduation ceremony.
But as the atmosphere swirled above, catastrophe brewed.
Late in the afternoon, a tornado rated as the most intense on the Enhanced Fujita (EF) Scale, an EF5, cut a 6-mile-long (9.7-kilometer) gash through the densely populated Joplin metro area, home to more than 50,000 people.
Despite the city’s track record of following the latest building codes and residents receiving several warnings beforehand, the tornado — with winds estimated at more than 200 miles (321 kilometers) per hour at times — killed 161, injured over 1,000 and wrecked more than 8,000 buildings, including a major hospital and other critical facilities.
The high number of fatalities made it the deadliest single tornado in the U.S. since the National Weather Service (NWS) began official record-keeping in 1950. And the $2.8 billion in damages made it the costliest.
Although the Joplin tornado was far from a run-of-the-mill event, it was one of several cataclysmic tornadoes in that spring alone. Tornadoes in general are deadly phenomena, so much that since 1950 they have caused more deaths than hurricanes and earthquakes combined. And among all of the nations around the world, the U.S. has the greatest number of tornadoes per year.
Informed by decades of experience studying disasters, a team of researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) recognized that lessons from Joplin could have wide-reaching impact and leaped at the opportunity to closely examine the event. Their nearly three-year technical investigation into the event, supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), uncovered vulnerabilities in emergency communications, building design practices and wind measurements. To address those weak spots, the team devised 16 recommendations entailing major improvements to various guidelines, building codes and standards.
Today, nearly a decade after the tragedy in Joplin, the dedicated efforts of NIST and other organizations to follow up on these recommendations have made significant headway in protecting life and property from tornadoes.