CLEVELAND - So, when a tornado warning is issued for your area, what do you do? Well, tornado warning sirens blared many minutes before the devastating Joplin, Missouri twister touched down.
But what many residents did or didn't do had local and national officials baffled. And it changed tornado warning procedures forever.
Imagine this monster coming at you. A massive EF-5 tornado with multiple vortexes chewing up everything in its path. This tornado struck Joplin, Missouri late in the afternoon on Sunday, May 22, 2011. With winds as high as 250 mph and a path more than a mile wide, it destroyed more than 20 percent of Joplin.
In fact, 158 people lost their lives that day, making this the deadliest tornado in the U.S. since 1947. What's more, more than 1,100 people were injured.
Local Warning Coordination Meteorologist Gary Garnet from the Cleveland National Weather Service was one of the leading investigators on scene to assess the damage after the tornado.
"I've done a lot of tornado surveys, about 80 tornado surveys in my career," Garnet said. "I've never seen anything like that. In the center of the path, you could look as far as you could see in any direction, and there was just nothing but complete devastation and destruction."
But what surprised him and the other officials on site was how the local residents reacted when the tornado warning was issued. Many of them, at first, did nothing. Joplin residents heard the warning sirens, but waited for another sign to convince them to go to safety. They needed to either see the tornado itself or hear from another source that it was actually coming. These added seconds could easily have caused many of the deaths and injuries from this storm.
"People have become somewhat complacent with all the different avenues of information," Garnet said. "People seem to be overwhelmed with information and they hear about warnings all the time, even though it may not be for their location. I think it desensitizes them a little bit."
As a result of the lessons learned from Joplin, the National Weather Service is gradually phasing in new, enhanced tornado warnings. Warnings that will now be much more specific. Warnings that tell us whether the twister is simply indicated by radar or if a tornado has been spotted on the ground.
"We're putting in our confidence level of size and intensity based on the signature," Garnet said. "We can put in there anything from significant to, what we call, catastrophic."
Specifics that Garnet hopes will help residents react faster when a warning is issued and, as a result, save more lives. The new enhanced warning system is currently in use across the Plains States and Tornado Alley. It should be instituted here in Ohio and surrounding states in the next one to two years.