Watching Joplin 'debris ball' on radar: ‘You really feel for the people out there’
The tornado's radar signal over Joplin, Missouri, last Sunday.
May 27th, 2011
11:52 AM ET

Watching Joplin 'debris ball' on radar: ‘You really feel for the people out there’

When Gene Hatch reported to work at the National Weather Service’s Springfield, Missouri, office on Sunday afternoon, he knew it was going to be bad.

The national Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma, had updated its forecast for southwest Missouri from a slight risk to a moderate risk of severe weather - meaning a stronger possibility of thunderstorms, hail and tornadoes.

The storm eventually produced the deadliest tornado in recorded U.S. history – destroying much of Joplin, Missouri, killing at least 132 people and leaving 156 people missing or unaccounted for.

Hatch, a meteorologist at the Springfield office since 1999, was one of two radar operators on duty that day. He remembers watching as the tornado formed and passed over Joplin. He knew immediately it had been destructive.

“One of the things you can kind of see on radar is what’s called a ‘debris ball,’ where the actual reflectivity patterns on the radar will actually begin to show the debris that’s being lofted by the tornado.

“It looks like a little ball on the tail end of the hook,” he said. “And that was fairly evident fairly quickly as the storm moved through Joplin.”

As a professional, Hatch says, “you have to remain kind of detached from [your emotions] in order to do the job at the highest level of performance.”

But he admits it’s hard to overlook the human side of the drama.

He’s been part of it himself: In May 2003, a powerful tornado ripped through his home in Battlefield, Missouri, doing $45,000 worth of damage to his house.

He was at work that day; his family was home. He watched the radar as the tornado’s signature hook moved through his town. Fortunately, his family had found shelter in a neighbor’s basement.

“For me personally, it’s kind of emotional. You really feel for the people out there,” he said.

“From first-hand knowledge I know what people are going through right now and have an idea of what the devastation is out there. But at the same time, we’re here to do our job. We’re here to make sure other people are safe, and do the best we can to provide that information as quickly as possible.”

On Sunday, Hatch and his colleague, Eric Wise, watched as the storm that would hit Joplin moved across the region. For a time, there was little movement.

Then, suddenly, that changed.

“The storm initially developed and … just kind of kept sitting there and building,” Hatch recalled. “When it was finally able to take advantage of some more eastward movement is when the circulation in the storm began to really get going, and the farther it got east, the tighter that circulation got – in the whole storm, not just the tornadic portion of it.

“And as it did get moving toward the Missouri and Kansas state line is when the rotation really began to tighten up, and that was the point when we started putting out the tornado warnings for that storm.”

At 3 p.m., the Storm Prediction Center issued a tornado watch. At 4:30 the Springfield office, which is responsible for warnings – meaning severe weather has been sighted - started issuing severe thunderstorm and tornado warnings.

Wise put out the warning for the Joplin area at 5:17. The tornado touched down in Joplin 24 minutes later, at 5:41 p.m.

By that time, Hatch was monitoring a separate tornado created by the storm, one that passed northeast of the Missouri town of South West City, hard by the Oklahoma state line.

At 6:30 the warning for Joplin proper was lifted; a warning for areas east of the city expired at 7:10.

It was hard to let go, said Hatch.

“I left work at 2 a.m. and it took me until 4 a.m. to get to sleep,” he said. “I was then awake by 8 a.m., unable to sleep anymore.”

At 2 p.m. Monday, he returned to work.

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Filed under: Joplin • Missouri • Natural Disasters • Weather
soundoff (27 Responses)
  1. Mmmmm

    The radar image looks like kindergarten blot paintings...

    May 27, 2011 at 10:19 pm | Report abuse |
  2. charlie

    In the early fifties my grandparents on both my dad and mom's side lived within a couple of miles of a Mississippi River levee in Mississippi County in N.E. Arkansas between Osceola and Luxora.Last I heard it is still the poorest Congressional District in the US, A place where cotton and soybeans are king and the delta plantations of 50 years ago are now called farms, multi-million dollar farms and 5 towns in the county were named after one very rich planters' daughters. Both of my grandparents' families, living on tenant farms owned by said planter, had home made storm houses, holes dug in their yards, planked with wood, covered in logs and piled over with dirt. They didn't look like much but they were free to build for tenant farmers. Ironically, 50 years later, fancy (to the my grandparents' generation) suburbs are laid out without a cellar in sight. Are these Northerners, who are building these things out of ignorance? A beautiful suburb in Dixie alley or in tornado alley (there are two) without storm houses of some kind is simply an expensive death trap in this region. I suggest that folks put up a privacy fence around a piece of back yard and get out their shovels and start digging a free storm house until they can afford something to be delivered. Wake up people! A $200,000 house is worth squat in N.E. Arkansas without a safe hole in the ground for our god aweful storms, or else move before you become a statistic. Though God knows our storm houses might have been poor protection against a C-5 tornado! So as the Greenhouse Warming takes effect, poo poo it all you want to, but be sure to dig a foot or two deeper anyway. Oh yes, those storm houses we built were frightening to get into in the dark, rain howling and snakes, frogs and spiders our neighbors and an oil lamp our only light. But we never lost a soul to a twister.

    May 28, 2011 at 3:10 pm | Report abuse |
  3. jay cataldo

    ust before 8:00 pm central, on 5/28/2011 Drew Griffin ask a report: " why have the dump trucks not come in and hauled all that junk away? " –Mr. Griffin, its not junk, its peoples lives, thier homes, everything they own. Please dont refer to it as "junk"

    May 28, 2011 at 9:08 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Mike

    This article has a large error. This was not the deadliest tornado in history. The Tri-State Tornado of 1925 had 695 deaths and was the worst single tornado in U.S. history.

    May 30, 2011 at 3:09 pm | Report abuse |
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