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. Cesar

    I am the real Cesar. The world is a thunder bolt, and I am its lighting.

    May 27, 2011 at 1:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • Skull Pirate

      No, you're a FOOL.

      May 27, 2011 at 2:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • M. C. S.

      You spelled your name wrong, Cesar. unless you're talking about Cesar the dog whisperer. But he doesn't throw thunderbolts!

      May 27, 2011 at 3:07 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Sevr4

    I thought the 1925 Tri-State tornado was the largest, 800 Dead,,

    May 27, 2011 at 1:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Katrina

      The Tri-State tornado can not be proved that it was one tornado that did all the damage or several in the same storm- therefore it can not be listed as the deadliest "tornado"

      May 27, 2011 at 2:04 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Michael Bowery

    I have the deepest sympathy for those who are suffering in Joplin.
    However, and I know others have said it and for some reason been castigated for saying the obvious. I have been coming to the USA since 1995 and been captivated by lovely American homes that look in many cases like fairytale houses in wealthy suburbs (N.C) also the ordinary trailer homes and those which are more upmarket but not luxurious. One thing stands out for all of them is the front brick facade and the rest clapboard erections which in any really adverse weather cannot stand the test. What is wrong with simple brick dwellings where in a tornado the worst which might happen is you lose a roof. I have studiede many tornado stricken areas of the usa as they have been reported and shown. The buildings left standing are those of brick/cement construction.
    I confess to being puzzled watching the mahem of tornados and the misery of the their aftermatch fopr families like those in Joplin.

    May 27, 2011 at 1:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • Stephen

      You have never really studied EF-5 level damage. Take a look at photos from Greensburg, KS:

      http://www.ultimatechase.com/chase_accounts/greensburg_tornado_damage_survey.htm

      Numerous examples of brick and concrete structures being 90-100% destroyed. Very few man-made structures can withstand the winds and propelled debris of a violent tornado.

      May 27, 2011 at 2:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Smuba

      That tornado was ripping plumbing out of the ground. I doubt anything could have stood up to that, bricks or not.

      May 27, 2011 at 2:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sam

      You are uneducated. Homes are destroyed by wind getting into the structure, this usually occurs first by either the roof coming off or by windows breaking. From there, the building loses all structural integrity and is easily ripped apart. The only possible way to prevent that (and I doubt it would work all the time) is to build large windowless poured cement boxes that people are supposed to live in.

      The answer is for people to build above ground safe rooms or underground shelters. Unfortunately, these can cost as much as $5,000 or more to build. The average homeowner can't spare this kind of money, and the government refuses to help unless your home is destroyed by a tornado. They'll give you tax credits to put it energy efficient appliances, but not something that will save lives.

      May 27, 2011 at 2:19 pm | Report abuse |
  4. jon

    I have very strnog doubts that even brick would've stood up to this tornado. One problem with brick here is the high cost of heating and cooling, brick homes cost more to heat in the summer and cool in the winter. Now if you want to live in a hole in the ground then earth contact homes are the way to go, of course you have to have a decent slope on your

    May 27, 2011 at 1:59 pm | Report abuse |
  5. jon

    Sorry got that backward meant heat in winter, cool in summer.

    May 27, 2011 at 2:00 pm | Report abuse |
  6. RUFFNUTT

    i donated money (only 80$ all i had cause im broke)... but what do you bet the ja-paneese don't offer to help at all.. or any other country...

    May 27, 2011 at 3:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • lynn

      One should give when one's heart says to. And not expect anything in return.

      May 27, 2011 at 3:45 pm | Report abuse |
  7. EvolveNowNot Later

    People living in Tornado Alley will spend 10's of thousands of dollars building in-ground swimming pools, decks and hot tubs in their back yards, but not spend $5K on an above-ground safe room. This says something about their intelligence, when they make such choices. For those who could not possibly have afforded a safe room, due to income level and not frivolous spending choices, I am sorry for your recent losses.

    May 27, 2011 at 3:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cptobvious

      Pools and hot tubs are great for keeping up with the Jones' while a safe room is not so much fun. But when the tornado is coming I bet the Jones' come begging for help to the guy with the safe room.

      May 27, 2011 at 4:47 pm | Report abuse |
  8. EvolveNowNot Later

    For those who took every precaution from the moments the warnings began and lost everything but your lives, you did great! You are alive and can now rebuild with the fact in mind that this could happen again. Take every precaution your income level will allow you to in the building of your new home. Add a windowless, entirely concrete room with a steel door off your basement and cover it with 2-3 feet of earth. Cost to do this? Basically one less room in your house. Cost to NOT do this? Possibly your families lives.

    May 27, 2011 at 3:43 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Name (required)

    @ Michael Bowery:

    The price of brick is also a consideration for new-home builders and buyers; it is cost-prohibitive. I haven't seen any all-brick new homes being built in years; a F5 tornado would demolish them anyway.

    Condolences to all the victims of these horrific storms.

    May 27, 2011 at 3:46 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Name (required)

    @M. C. S.:
    Do you know how stupid you sound telling somebody they spelled their own name wrong? That's like Cesar telling YOU your initials are not M.C.S.
    Which they probably aren't.

    May 27, 2011 at 3:50 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Name (required)

    @EvolveNowNot Later:

    Every state can have and has had a tornado. Every one. So, therefore, every homeowner should make the smart decision and build a safe room, right?
    Riiiiiight.

    May 27, 2011 at 3:54 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Vernman

    If your home takes a direct hit, the bricks will not make any difference. In fact, they may become dangerous projectiles when the home breaks apart. I live in Joplin, I know.

    May 27, 2011 at 4:26 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Allen N Wollscheidt

    The article states,

    " 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 ".

    While it was truly an awesome and frightening event which caused terrible damage, NOT by any means was "much of Joplin" destroyed : This statement is a pointless exaggeration !
    .

    May 27, 2011 at 5:17 pm | Report abuse |
  14. LC

    brick or no brick F5=Complete Distruction

    May 27, 2011 at 5:22 pm | Report abuse |
  15. tiffany

    My prayers go out to you Joplin.

    May 27, 2011 at 6:19 pm | Report abuse |
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