By Wally Kennedy
JOPLIN, Mo. —
For some, the sounding of back-to-back siren warnings early Thursday was eerily reminiscent of the back-to-back sirens heard on May 22, 2011, when one of the worst tornadoes in U.S. history ripped across Joplin.
But this time, only half of the city heard both warnings.
For the first time with Thursday’s severe thunderstorms, the city used a new feature it acquired when it upgraded its storm siren system last year. The city now can warn half of the city at a time.
“We have the South Zone and the North Zone,” said Keith Stammer, head of emergency management for Joplin and Jasper County.
“Last night, we warned the South Zone first and then the whole city.”
People who were unaware that the city had siren zones called the city to alert it to the fact that only half of the city’s sirens were functioning.
“People got on the phone in one part of the town where the sirens were going off and talked to people in another part of town where the sirens were not going off,” Stammer said. “The people where the sirens were not going off called to let us know their sirens were not working.”
The dividing line for the zones is 15th Street.
The sirens were sounded in response to National Weather Service reports of possible tornadic storms in the area.
The first siren activation was at 1:28 a.m. Thursday for the south side of the city after officials received a weather service report of a tornadic storm in northern Newton County. The storm had tracked from Grove, Okla., where three houses were destroyed by rotating winds.
“You frequently see rotating winds on radar in storms, but this was showing a debris ball in the air,” Stammer said. “That heightened everyone’s concern when that storm moved into Newton County.”
The sirens were activated again at 1:43 a.m. when a segment of the storm from Grove expanded and appeared to be tornadic near the Iron Gates area on the west side of Joplin. In that instance, all of the city’s sirens were sounded.
Having warning zones within a city is an emerging trend, Stammer said.
In Baxter Springs, Kan., and Webb City, residents took shelter in substantial buildings that were opened to the public.
In Baxter Springs, a woman said she woke up her three daughters after hearing sirens and drove to a church that had been designated as a shelter, only to find its doors locked and people waiting outside in the rain. The woman returned to home.
Sgt. Rex Qualls, with the Baxter Springs Police Department, said: “By the time they got the church open, there were people standing there. The key holder to the church had not had enough time to get there yet.
“You might think the key holder is across the street, but they could be across town.”
Qualls said he talked with the pastor of the church, who said it had been opened by the time the pastor arrived there. The basement of the First Assembly of God is the only shelter available to the public in Baxter Springs, Qualls said.
At Webb City, police said 30 people sought shelter in the Webb City Public Library after it was opened by police. The Webb City Police Department is about two blocks from the library.
Sue Oliveira, director of the library, said: “We have been doing this for several years where the police come and open it up, especially in the middle of the night.
“In the old days, I would do it. But that wasn’t practical. When the storm alarms go off now, they (police) have the keys to the building and they can let people in during the hours the library is closed.
“The Police Department is two blocks from here. They are much closer than I am. Driving through a serious storm is not part of my training.”
Oliveira said the library was not designed to be a storm shelter, but it is “one of the safest buildings in town. We are glad that it is available to people.”
Officials with police and sheriff departments in Southwest Missouri and Southeast Kansas said they had received no reports of significant property damage Thursday morning.
A spokesman for the National Weather Service forecast office in Springfield said it had not received any reports of damage, but that some low-lying roads were closed to traffic because of flooding.
A spokesman for the Delaware County (Okla.) Sheriff’s Department said tornado-like winds hit an area south of Grove, where three houses were destroyed. Several people suffered minor injuries. The storm downed tree limbs and caused widespread power outages.
A spokeswoman for Empire District Electric Co., based in Joplin, said about 1,900 customers in its Kansas and Oklahoma service areas were without electrical power for a period after the storms.
THE JOPLIN REGIONAL AIRPORT logged 1.41 inches of rain in connection with the storms.