Images Detailing EF5 Damage from the Joplin Tornado

Street view of homes that were swept from their foundations along West 26th Street, where some of the most intense damage occurred.

□ Despite being the deadliest and most destructive tornado in recent history, the Joplin tornado’s awesome strength is sometimes overlooked. A google search of “Joplin tornado damage” reveals pages of media imagery showing building damage consistent with a tornado of EF3 or low-end EF4 intensity. Many online weather enthusiasts have pondered over the veracity of the EF5 rating, and some researchers have stated that there appeared to be few instances of EF5 damage in the tornado’s aftermath.

This, I believe, is far from accurate. Firstly, newspapers and news websites have a history of ignoring photographs of EF5 damage in favor of weaker, yet more commonly recognizable damage. Damage in the EF3 range tends to be the media standard. A partially leveled home looks more insidious to the average person than a clean foundation.

The Joplin tornado left more empty slabs than perhaps any tornado in history. The Enhanced Fujita Scale puts great emphasis on homes of superior construction, so a concrete slab is not an obvious indication of EF5 winds. Considering the incredible density of the buildings in Joplin, however, the volume of clean foundations was rather impressive.

Note: Most of the close aerial shots were taken more than a week after the tornado, so some damage clean-up had already taken place. Geodetic survey images that were taken immediately after the tornado have been included to verify that the homes were swept away by the tornado, and not bulldozers. Click each image to enlarge.

The Joplin tornado was narrow and rapidly intensifying as it passed over homes near Sunset Drive. One large home, of unknown construction, was swept completely away while neighboring homes remained comparatively untouched. Damage in this picture indicates the presence of a suction vortex that may have travelled from bottom left to top right.

Will Norton, whose online notoriety garnered significant media attention, was one of the first victims of the tornado. His Hummer H3 was overtaken as he was driving south on Shifferdecker Avenue, about a half mile west of St. Johns Hospital. Despite wearing his seatbelt, he was ejected from the vehicle and later found dead in the pond at lower right.

After leveling the Elk Lodge and causing five fatalities, the tornado continued to rapidly intensify as it devastated medical buildings just west of St. Johns Hospital. Large concrete parking stops weighing approximately 300lbs were ripped from their steel-anchors and hurled more than 50 yards.

After causing five deaths at the Elks Lodge, the tornado continued to rapidly intensify as it devastated medical buildings just west of St. Johns Hospital. Large, steel-anchored parking stops weighing approximately 300lbs were ripped from the ground and hurled more than 50 yards. Partha Sarkar, a wind engineer from Iowa State University, concluded that winds of at least 205mph were required to uproot the parking stops (Sarkar, 2011). Winds of that intensity only inches above the ground are indicative of significantly stronger winds at roof-top level. (Image presented at 2012 AMS Conference)

The tornado was widening and likely at peak intensity as it travelled down West 26th Street, moments after St Johns Hospital was gutted and effectively “destroyed”. A row of homes was swept away near a walking path. The highest concentration of fatalities throughout the tornado’s path occurred in a half mile stretch in this area.

View of the same area along West 26th Street. This image was taken the day after the tornado and shows the same empty foundations before any clean up had commenced. Heavy vehicles were thrown into some of the exposed basements.

View of damage along 20th Avenue, immediately northeast of St. Johns Hospital. The few remaining trees and shrubs in the foreground were completely debarked, a damage indicator unique to EF5 tornadoes. Vegetation damage in Joplin was noticeably more intense then that caused by the 2007 Greensburg tornado and many other storms given F5 ratings pre-2007. At extreme bottom left is the tractor trailer shown in the next image.

At top, a mangled car was hurled into an empty basement. At bottom, a debarked tree with the frame of a disintegrated vehicle wrapped around it. Partial grass scouring is visible in the foreground. (Images by Dan Michaels)

At top, the stripped frame of a tractor trailer was wrapped around a debarked tree near St. Johns Hospital. Partial grass scouring is visible in the foreground. At bottom, a basement is all that remains of a frame home on West 26th Street. (Images by Dan Michaels)

The Greenbriar Nursing Home was a large, brick complex (at center) that was leveled and partially swept away. Of the approximately 90 residents and staff that were huddled in the building, 21 were killed. It was the highest tornado-related death toll in a single building since 1987, when 22 were killed at a school ceremony in Saragosa, Texas.

View of the Greenbriar nursing home before the tornado.

View of the Greenbriar nursing home before the tornado.

Entire blocks of two-story homes were completely flattened as the tornado crossed Main Street. Taking into consideration the density of the structures, damage of this intensity is rare and an indication of incredible intensity.

Manhole covers weighing in excess of 100lbs were ripped from the ground. Partha Sarkar concluded that winds in excess of 200mph were required to remove the well-sealed covers from the streets (Joplin Globe, 2011).

As the tornado approached Joplin High School, homes along Missouri Avenue were leveled or swept away. While the tornado likely maintained EF5 intensity from just northwest of St. Johns Hospital to a half mile east of Rangeline Road, the most extreme damage occurred in two distinct peaks near the beginning and end of the EF5 contour.

The tornado was near the end of its primary peak in intensity as it crossed neighborhoods to the west of Joplin High School. Homes along Iowa Avenue were swept away in EF5 fashion. Mark Lindquist, later dubbed the “miracle survivor”, was thrown several hundred yards from a home in this area. Lindquist made it out alive, but the three men he tried to protect did not.

Image of Iowa and Missouri Avenue the day after the tornado. The four foundations in the previous picture can be seen adjacent to the baseball field. Light poles and steel fence posts were bent to the ground in the athletic fields.

Homes were swept from their foundations on both sides of Joplin High School. The center of the tornado crossed the school’s athletic fields and entered a residential area bound by Indiana Avenue. High velocity projectiles left gouge marks in grass lawns.

Probable EF5 damage along Indiana Avenue. Rows of homes were reduced to their floorboards. The death toll of 158 people made the Joplin event by far the deadliest tornado of the weather-radar age. Had the tornado occurred after dark a few hours later, the death toll would have been much higher. Research has shown that, on average, tornadoes that occur during daylight hours cause only 64% of the fatalities expected from nighttime tornadoes, assuming all other variables are controlled. Therefore, it is likely the tornado would have caused 250 to 270 deaths had it taken place later in the day (Stimers and Paul, 2011).

Aerial view of Indiana and Illinois Avenue the day after the tornado. The empty foundations visible in the previous photograph are evident.

Homes were swept away on both sides of Montana Place, and the few remaining trees were debarked. The immense blizzard of high speed debris within the tornado made survival difficult for those not in reinforced concrete shelters.

The tornado may have reached a secondary wind maxima as it crossed Rangeline Road. A large swath of wind damaged grass marked the path of the tornado's inner core. At top left, view of scoured pavement in the Walmart parking lot. At bottom left, view of scoured pavement in the parking lot of Pizza by the Stout, which was located just west of Home Depot.

The tornado may have reached a secondary wind maxima as it crossed Rangeline Road. A large swath of wind damaged grass marked the path of the tornado’s inner core. At top left, view of scoured pavement in the Walmart parking lot. At bottom left, view of scoured pavement in the parking lot of Pizza By Stout, which was located just west of Home Depot.

Extreme surface winds partially scoured fields of grass behind Pizza Hut, where five people were killed after taking shelter in a walk-in freezer. The inner core of the tornado skirted between Home Depot and Walmart, but both stores likely experienced EF4+ winds as suction vortices rotated around the center of the storm. Eight people were killed in Home Depot, and three at Walmart.

Another view of the devastated Walmart. A dark patch marks where pavement was scoured from the parking lot (left center). The scouring commenced at the base of an uprooted tree. A suction vortex traveling from east to west may have passed through the center of the store, leveling much of the structure to the ground.

Just east of Rangeline Road, warehouses were left as bare slabs, and large industrial vehicles were hurled more than 400 yards. At far right, the tornado left a trail of scoured vegetation and pronounced wind rowing.

The Joplin tornado was an incredible meteorological phenomena. Unlike some infamous EF5’s, the Joplin tornado was rain-wrapped and not clearly documented on film. Additionally, it had a fairly short path length – less than 25 miles. Even so, the Joplin storm was one of the most powerful tornadoes ever surveyed, and likely caused the most intense tornado damage ever photographed in an urban area. Video evidence, which is discussed more in depth here, indicates that the massive tornado had exceptionally powerful multiple vortices. It is likely that most of the extreme damage occurred in only a few seconds as a result of brief wind features with instantaneous gusts over 250mph. Engineers found evidence of winds of at least 205mph only inches above the surface, a remarkable figure considering the density of structures and the dramatic slowing effect of ground friction.

Detailed Analysis of Videos Taken Inside the EF5 Joplin Tornado

The Joplin tornado was powerful enough to scour pavement from parking lots and rip 300lb steel-anchored parking stops from the ground. Without a doubt, the Joplin tornado caused the most intense tornado damage ever surveyed in a heavily urbanized area. In this image, empty foundations are flanked by debarked trees and lawns that have been partially scoured of grass.

□ The power of the EF5 Joplin tornado is sometimes muted against the fury of the 2011 season. While not as photogenic as the Tuscaloosa tornado three weeks before, the Joplin storm left some of the most extreme tornado damage ever documented. Engineers concluded that the winds had to be in excess of 205 mph to tear out the parking stops by St. Johns Hospital (Joplin Globe, 2011). Winds of that intensity only a few inches above the ground easily indicate winds over 250mph several feet above the ground.

The fact that the Joplin tornado spent the duration of its EF5 intensity atop a grid of homes and businesses gave meteorologists a fascinating look at the structure of an EF5 tornado. Never before had such a violent tornado destroyed so many homes. In fact, the Joplin tornado killed more people and destroyed equally as many buildings as all other EF5 tornadoes since the year 2000 combined.

The Joplin tornado maintained EF5 intensity from an area just north of St. Johns Hospital all the way to Rangeline Road. Aerial imagery indicates the tornado reached peak intensity in neighborhoods west of Joplin High School. Dozens of likely well-built homes were swept away between Pennsylvania and Iowa Avenue. The damage was remarkable considering the urban density of the area.

The tornado maintained EF5 intensity all the way to east Joplin. On Rangeline Road, there were 18 fatalities in six businesses, eight of which occurred at a Home Depot (lower left). The tornado was powerful enough to scour grass from the ground, visible here in the worst streak of damage just north of Home Depot.

The tornado was wrapped in rain and not clearly visible to those in its path, and the mesocyclone that spawned it was so immense it blackened the afternoon sky. Despite the less than perfect filming conditions, more than a dozen movies were taken in the vicinity of the tornado. The storm’s massive circulation brought hurricane force wind gusts over a wide swath of Joplin, so most of the films were recorded in the storm’s outer fringes. Only a few videos were taken inside the EF2 damage contour.

Map showing where the two

Map showing where the two “first person” Joplin films were taken. Point “A” is where the Minnesota Avenue footage was recorded. Point “B” is the location of the famous Fastrip gas station video

B. Fastrip, South Duquesne Road

“Then I heard a noise that sounded like the world was coming to an end.”

-Linda Ledford (4/3/74)

The most well-known video of the Joplin tornado was taken at a Fastrip gas station. Filmed at the intersection of 20th and Duquesne Road, the tornado was 3/4 of a mile wide and at EF4 intensity when it passed over the area. When listening to the video’s audio, it is clear the distribution of winds within the tornado was very uneven. Almost all of the damage occurred during a brief period on the backside of the storm. This may have been the result of a suction vortex imbedded within the tornado or, as some people have suggested, it may have been the back “eyewall” of the tornado after the calm center had passed.

It takes a good set of headphones to really appreciate the roar of the approaching winds, which were likely well over 200mph just above ground level. The wind feature, be it a suction vortex or the tornado’s eyewall, was deafeningly loud, yet only audible for a few seconds before impacting the Fastrip. Therefore, it was moving significantly faster than the forward motion of the tornado, which was about 20 to 25mph. This gives credence to the theory that it was a powerful suction vortex rotating within the tornado.

Using Logic Pro, I was able to sort out much of the interfering noise and focus specifically on the base sounds which constitute the “roar” of the tornado. Each point on the graph is the average base volume around each point (e.g.. the graph’s highest reading at 3″:05″ is the average of :04 – :06 and the point “:10” is the average of :09 – :11). The data indicates the winds dropped significantly inside the tornado right before the spike of highest winds. The roar of nearby winds was audible in the calm center and caused some interference, so the drop was likely even more pronounced than shown here.

The Fastrip was near the geographic center of the damage path and likely experienced the tornado’s eye. It is plausible that the winds decreased significantly, if not completely, right before the most violent winds struck. In the video, a friend of the man filming can he heard saying “We’re good, we’re good” as the audible winds dramatically decrease in the center of the tornado. Also, it appears that the extremely high winds lasted only a few seconds. Even though the overall volume increases when the roof is torn off (as the camera is directly exposed to the outside) around 3:05, the base volume, which may be indicative of the most violent winds, dramatically decreases by 3:10.

If the speed and size of the Joplin tornado were the only variables considered, it would be assumed that the Fastrip experienced peak winds for nearly two minutes. But video evidence clearly indicates otherwise. This may provide an interesting perspective on other large or slow-moving tornadoes, such as the F5 tornado that struck Jarrell, Texas on May 27, 1997.

The destroyed Fastrip is highlighted in yellow. A swath of partial vegetation scouring and wind rowing to the south of the store indicates the storm's strongest winds may have just missed the area.

The destroyed Fastrip is highlighted in yellow. A swath of partial vegetation scouring and wind rowing to the south of the store indicates the storm’s strongest winds may have just missed the area.

The people who hid in the Fastrip were incredibly lucky. A similar series of events took place at a Pizza Hut on Rangeline Road with tragic results. Approximately 15 people sought shelter in a walk-in freezer, much like at the Fastrip. The tornado was still at EF5 intensity when it crossed Range Line Road, however, and the winds ripped into the freezer and killed a third of the people inside. From survivor accounts, it appears the Pizza Hut was also struck by a brief but powerful wind feature. The store’s manager, Christopher Lucas, tied a cord around his waist in an effort to keep the freezer door closed. One survivor, who held onto Lucas’s leg, later told reporters that “everything blew away. He was gone, the door was gone, everything.” Other survivors reported watching people who were “ripped out the front and back” of the freezer. Lucas was found dead in the parking lot of a nearby business. Four other people pulled from the freezer were also killed. Some of the survivors experienced severe blunt force trauma from high velocity debris. The Pizza Hut just happened to be directly in the streak of worst damage, which was made visible by ground scouring in an area between Home Depot and Walmart.

A. 2500 Block, South Minnesota Avenue

A similar, primarily-audio film was taken with a cellphone near the Joplin High School on Minnesota Avenue. The tornado was at maximum strength as it passed by this area, and numerous instances of possible EF5 damage occurred only a few blocks to the north. The home where the footage was shot was just outside the core of extreme destruction near the F2/F3 damage contour. An audio analysis of this video was difficult due to the interference of other sounds, particularly the clatter of debris striking the home.

Even without an analysis of the base volumes, the video still provides useful information about the composition of the tornado. Damaging winds (75mph+) appear to affect the home for approximately 100 seconds, beginning at 1:30 and ending abruptly around 3:10. Most of the damage, however, occurs during two distinct bursts, each lasting less than 10 seconds. During the first burst (at 2:12), flying debris can be heard impacting the home and several loud thuds indicate the home’s roof had begun to fail. Loud clinking sounds are audible as the entire home shakes as if struck by an earthquake. Around 2:35 a second, stronger rush of winds strike the home, likely causing most of the structural damage. Near the end of the storm, the window in the bathroom shatters, an indication winds had shifted as the tornado’s center moved to the east. A third pocket of intense winds roars above the home for a few moments before the storm subsides.

The home where the Minnesota Avenue film was taken was right at the EF2/EF3 damage contour, near the edge of the tornado's path. Most, if not all of the approximately 80 fatalities that occurred in frame homes were in the EF4 and EF5 damage zones.

The home where the Minnesota Avenue film was taken was right at the EF2/EF3 damage contour, near the edge of the tornado’s path. Most, if not all of the approximately 70 fatalities that occurred in frame homes were in the EF4 and EF5 damage zones.

The Minnesota Avenue videographer was just outside the area where the tornado’s most extreme wind features were causing EF4 and EF5 damage. The evenly spaced periods of wind acceleration may have been related to the home’s proximity to intense multiple vortices that passed only a few hundred feet to the north. The exact make-up of the tornado may never be known, but the videographer in the Fastrip on Duquesne Road encountered a brief, violent wind feature that the filmmakers on Minnesota Avenue did not experience.

The film taken on Minnesota Avenue was just south of Joplin High School’s athletic fields (one block out of frame). The tornado’s most intense damage occurred only a few hundred feet to the north. Dozens of homes to the west of the high school were swept completely away.

Both videos provide evidence that supports the notion that many violent tornadoes have small, extremely powerful wind features that cause the most intense damage. The Joplin videos indicate that the tornado had a wide swath of powerful winds capable of causing EF1 to EF3 damage, and small-scale vortices that caused EF4 and EF5 damage. While the exact winds will never be known, they were likely significantly more powerful than 210mph cap the Enhanced Fujita Scale appears to utilize.