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How the warning system failed Joplin last May

Mike Smith wasn’t planning to write a book about the Joplin tornado. He simply wanted to find out why 161 people died in the deadliest tornado to hit the U.S. in decades.

But the more he researched, he said, the more he realized he needed to write about what he had learned.

The result is “When the Sirens Were Silent,” published by Mennonite Press. Smith is scheduled to discuss the book and sign copes at Watermark Books at 7 p.m. Thursday.

He’ll be appearing with reporter Denise Neil and photographer Jaime Green of the Wichita Eagle, who were in Joplin for a wedding and will talk about what they went through.

“Someone had to tell the story so this never happens again,” Smith said. “The story's got to get out.”

Smith’s book includes tips on how to keep your family safe at home, school or work.

A mythology has blossomed about the Joplin tornado that so many people died because folks didn’t pay attention to the tornado warning that had been issued, he said. But that only accounts for a small part of the death toll.

Smith has decided four circumstances combined to make the warnings “less effective than they should have been.”

To begin with, the tornado was so rain-wrapped it was “completely and totally invisible,” he said.

Since no one could see it, they were completely dependent on the warning system.

“There were very intelligent people who actually drove into the tornado” when it struck Joplin at 5:45 p.m. last May 22, he said.

Three different times, the Springfield branch of the National Weather Service misreported the location of the tornado in a way that led Joplin residents to believe the tornado would pass north of the city.

Jasper County policy is to sound sirens over the entire county even if only part of the county is included, so sirens were sounded for three minutes that day when a tornado warning was issued for the northern part of the county but didn’t include Joplin. At 5:17, three minutes after the sirens were turned off, the weather service issued a tornado warning for Joplin.

“But because the tornado sirens had just been turned off and because the National Weather Service had said the tornado was going to miss the town, the decision was made not to sound the sirens a second time,” Smith said. “That meant the people of Joplin didn’t know a tornado warning had been issued unless they were watching TV or listening to radio.”

By the time sirens were sounded again, the tornado was already hitting Joplin – and by then folks had no time to react.

Ever since 1973, Smith said, Jasper County has sounded the sirens for both tornado and severe thunderstorm warnings if the storms featured strong winds. And the Springfield branch has a reputation for over-warning for tornadoes, he said.

In the last four years, Ottawa County – which is in Oklahoma just southwest of Jasper County and is handled by the Tulsa branch of the weather service – has been hit by two tornadoes, Smith said. The Tulsa branch has issued 7 tornado warnings.

Over the same time period, Jasper County has had two tornadoes – including Joplin – and issued 34 tornado warnings.

“What you had was a situation where people were being unwittingly trained to ignore the sirens,” Smith said.