Ahead of the Storm

MU-trained meteorologists issued the most critical warnings of 2011

On April 27, 2011, a massive tornado outbreak, considered the worst natural disaster since Hurricane Katrina, saw more than 100 tornadoes rip destruction from Louisiana through Pennsylvania, killing 346 people.

An EF-5 tornado tore through the center of Joplin, killing people who even took cover in their basements. Photo courtesy KOMU-TV.

Less than a month later, on May 22, what is considered the seventh worst tornado in American history, and the 27th most violent twister in world history, tore into the center of Joplin, Mo. That EF-5 killed 162 people and caused more than $3 billion in property damage.

In both cases, a University of Missouri-trained meteorologist was on duty at the National Weather Service and issued weather warnings that saved countless lives.

Christina Crowe, class of 2007, was one of two forecasting meteorologists at the Huntsville, Ala. weather station on April 27 responsible for issuing 19 tornado warnings and nine tornado emergencies in a single shift.

Eric Wise, class of 2002 and weather forecaster for the National Weather Service in Springfield, Mo., was responsible for Joplin’s weather warnings when that city was struck. Like Crowe, he provided more than 20 minutes of warning time. Wise was later awarded the Operational Achievement Individual Award by the National Weather Association for his expert analysis.

Only a few dozen of these EF-4 and EF-5 tornadoes that Crowe and Wise had to deal with occur each year. The twisters can be huge – the Joplin tornado was more than a mile wide – and create winds of more than 200 mph. These winds are so fierce that people caught above ground cannot survive.  Structures hit by these tornadoes explode and collapse, even killing those in their basements.

Tracking More than 30 Tornadoes

Four tornadic super cell storms on the same radar scope during the April 27 tornado swarm near Huntsville, Ala. MU-trained meteorologist Christina Crowe had to issue warnings for these storms and dozens of others. Image courtesy Pennsylvania State University radar archive.

Crowe faced an enormous forecasting challenge in the April 27 tornado swarm that almost simultaneously produced more than 30 twisters over the top half of Alabama. She had to analyze each part of a fast moving and complex storm system and issue early and precise warnings as the storm developed.

“Even people who’ve lived in the area and worked at the weather service office for years hadn’t seen anything like this,” Crowe told the Times Daily newspaper in Florence, Ala.

Crowe said the characteristics of this storm were such that it was evident it could be deadly. “We input the metrics for it and generated comparisons to what we knew about this system, like the temperatures and dew point, and compared it to other, previous systems,” she said. “Everything came back off the charts, and we all knew that it could be even worse than that.”

After the storm devastated Alabama, it wrecked parts of Georgia and Virginia before it dissipated. There were more than 210 dead in Alabama. Huntsville had no electrical power for a week. A veteran forecaster said that in his 32 years forecasting, he had never seen as many violent tornadoes indicated on radar at one time. Officials estimated that up to 6,000 structures may have been destroyed or damaged, with an estimated financial loss of about $10 billion.

An Award Winning Forecast

Eric Wise was the forecaster on duty at the National Weather Service in Springfield, Mo., when a massive super cell thunderstorm developed over Oklahoma.

Eric Wise, forecaster for the Springfield, Mo. NWS, and Patrick Market. Photo courtesy National Weather Association.

That storm later produced a mile-wide, multiple-vortex tornado that struck Joplin on an otherwise quiet Sunday afternoon. It ranks as one of Missouri’s deadliest tornadoes and is likely the costliest. It was the first EF-5 tornado in Missouri since the Ruskin Heights tornado struck south of Kansas City in 1957. It is also only the second EF-5 tornado in Missouri history dating back to 1950. At least 162 people died from the tornado.

Wise issued a tornado warning for Joplin 20 minutes before the tornado formed. For that feat, the National Weather Association awarded Wise its highest honor – the Operational Achievement Individual Award. This award is presented to a meteorologist who makes a significant accurate and timely forecast for one or more significant weather events. The award was presented by the association in October at its annual convention in Birmingham, Ala., one of the places ravaged by the April 27 tornado outbreak.

“Because of Eric Wise, the people of Joplin had well over 20 minutes of lead time,” said Patrick Market, associate professor of synoptic meteorology at MU and instructor to Crowe and Wise. “We know how many people died that day, but we will never know how many lives were saved that day because of Eric’s early tornado warning.”

“Thirty years ago, it was not possible to give such warning and tell folks where and when it would hit,” said Tony Lupo, chair of MU’s soil, atmospheric science and environmental department. Lupo also trained both Crowe and Wise. “We often do that now.  Despite the death toll, there is little doubt that more people would have died without the accurate and timely advance warnings that Eric and Christina provided. There was time to get the school buses off the road and for people to get into their basements or take cover. This is what weather warnings are all about.”

Meteorology and Atmospheric Science at MU

Meteorology has been taught at MU since 1948. “We’ve been part of Soil and Atmospheric Science since about 1992,” Lupo said. “We added Environmental around 2005.”

In the late ‘90s there were about 40 students in the program. Today, more than 100 students are enrolled.  “I attribute the growth to issues such as climate change, severe weather and environmental concerns,” Lupo said. “Movies like Twister helped.  Also, I like to think our great teaching had something to do with it.”

According to Campus Explorer, an organization matching students to their most appropriate colleges, the University of Missouri meteorology program is the sixth most popular in the nation out of 77.  PhDs.org, which recommends graduate schools to students, stated that 94 percent of MU PhD graduates either obtained a job immediately after graduating or were negotiating with a specific organization.

There are three atmospheric science faculty and one instructor – Lupo; Market; Neil Fox, associate professor; and Eric Aldrich, adjunct faculty. “We’re all cut from the same cloth and that’s a key to our success,” Lupo said. “We work hard and we’re a team!”

Most MU atmospheric science students head for careers in operational meteorology – working for the National Weather Service or an aviation forecasting operation. Then, there are students, such as Abby Dryer of Springfield’s KY3 Storm Team, who want to live as a TV weather forecaster. But there are also students interested in environmental preservation, looking to focus on climate change as a climatologist, or on air quality as an environmental meteorologist.

“I think the performance of Wise and Crowe speaks for itself,” Market said. “Because of Eric, the people of Joplin had well over 20 minutes of lead time. Christina expertly handled a very complex, widespread and fast moving storm system. We know how many people died these days, but we will never know how many lives were saved that day because of their early tornado warnings.”

Q&A with Meteorologist Christina Crowe

Q. Where is your hometown?

A. I’m from south St. Louis.

What got you interested in weather?

Like most meteorologists, I’ve been interested in weather since I was young. In 4th grade my class read the book The Night of the Twisters. The day we finished I remember riding home from school and saw the sky turning green as it had in the book. I told my mom that this meant we were going to have bad weather. That evening, several strong hail storms hit our neighborhood. That feeling of excitement over knowing what would happen sparked my interest in meteorology. My dad fed that interest by taking me to a National Weather Service Spotter Training class. Now, it’s fun to provide that same training to young people and to wonder what future meteorologists might be in the audience.

What was your job during the tornado outbreak?

Forecasters do a lot of preparation leading up to severe weather events. I worked with a team of meteorologists for four days prior to the storms, putting together forecasts for the timing and types of severe weather we could expect. Then, two days before the outbreak, we started daily statewide and local briefings with our area Emergency Managers, other decision makers (school superintendents, mayors, etc.) and the local media. These briefings are critical because these groups need more detail so they can properly prepare for major weather events.

Christina Crowe, second from the left, watched the formation of multiple tornadoes on her radar display. This photo was taken at 3:40 p.m., the most dangerous period of the storm. Photo courtesy Christina Crowe.

My job during the outbreak was to work with another meteorologist to issue warnings for our 14-county area of responsibility (CWA). We worked as a team to issue severe thunderstorm and tornado warnings for approximately 14 hours that day.  Simultaneously, other staff members were communicating with our Emergency Managers over our radio system to get warning information out and to get real-time reports from police officers, firefighters, other first responders and spotters.

We also had people issuing forecasts and warnings for area airports, issuing flash flood warnings, answering calls from spotters with live reports of storms, and answering calls from the media. And someone still had to keep up our normal forecast operations. At the height of the outbreak, the afternoon of the 27th, we had 13 staff members on our operations floor – on an average work day we have three.

What forecasts did you issue and when? 

I ‘worked radar’ during the April 27th outbreak. This means that from the time I arrived on shift at about 6:30 a.m., until I left around 9 p.m., I watched our radar screens for signs of storms that could produce large hail, strong winds or tornadoes. If I saw radar signatures that indicated a severe storm or tornado, I used a computer program called WarnGen to send a warning to the public. On that day we had so many storms moving across our area, we had to tag-team warning responsibilities by each watching half of our CWA. An added challenge came when a widespread power outage occurred as the strongest storms marched across north Alabama. The outage led to the loss of contact with our two main radars, which rarely happens during weather events. We were able to use other radars, but the loss of detailed data made our day even more challenging.

How much warning were you able to provide before the tornado touched down?

That day we had at least 40 tornadoes touch down in our CWA, ranging from weak EF-1 tornadoes (wind speeds 65-85 mph) to violent EF-5 tornadoes (wind speeds greater than 200 mph). In total, our office issued 92 tornado warnings between 3 am and 11 pm and we had an average of about 23 minutes of lead time with our warnings.

Any part of your MU training that was useful in making this forecast?

My first training on forecasting and briefing for weather events came in my synoptic meteorology classes taught by Patrick Market. Not only did we learn about forecasting for severe weather, we also got frequent practice leading a forecast discussion in our classes. That, combined with our weekly responsibilities producing the Campus Weather Forecast, was invaluable training for my job in the National Weather Service.

A big part of my job is not only understanding the meteorology of an event, but also being able to translate that into something comprehensible for the public. MU’s synoptic courses were very helpful in developing those skills. Since we worked in teams, it also taught me how to work with other forecasters to put out good information.

Outside the classroom, I also learned from my involvement with the MU Storm Chase Team. Going out to see, in person, how storms develop and how they correlate to what we see on radar was important for me to put all the pieces together of severe weather evolution. Working in the MU Weather Visualization Lab directing team members on chases also taught me how to quickly diagnose severe weather threats and make rapid decisions to help keep students safe, which now helps me to issue better warnings.

What did you do after the storm?

Most people don’t realize our job doesn’t end once the storms are over. For weeks after the outbreak, our teams put in 12-16 hour days to survey damage caused by the tornadoes. We examined the destruction to rate their strength and determine their paths, which is important to learn how tornadoes form. Widespread power outages continued for at least five days, which made the job of surveying even more challenging.

After more than 1,000 man hours of surveying, we accounted for at least 40 tornadoes that touched down in our 14 counties. Several locations were actually hit by two tornadoes on the same day, which made surveying the damage something like trying to find meaning in a plate of spaghetti. Statewide, the total length of tornado tracks was approximately 1,200 miles – the distance from Atlanta to Denver.

While it was hard to look at the devastation to homes and towns, it was amazing to see the resilience of our communities. It’s humbling to meet someone who lost everything, but smile at you and say it’s okay because his family made it out alive and that’s all that matters. The stories of folks’ survival and loss put into perspective why we as meteorologists must do what we do.