By Wally Kennedy
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Eric Parker, his sister Kaylee Parker and her friend Mac Wright didn’t want a close encounter with a tornado on May 22.
They just wanted to watch it.
But every move they made that afternoon put them in the path of the tornado. They would eventually experience the tornado in the Alps Liquor Store at 26th and Main streets.
One of them would even look up inside it, experiencing something that others in its path also reported: The May 22 tornado was so big that it had an eye. People were actually aware they were inside it, if only momentarily.
Bill Davis, head meteorologist with the National Weather Service station at Springfield, said the eye of the Joplin tornado might have been as wide as 300 yards. The tornado itself was three-quarters of a mile wide. If the tornado was traveling at 10 to 25 mph, being in the eye would last a few seconds, he said.
“If you were in it, you could sense that things had slowed down,’’ Davis said.
While such a phenonemon is rare, Joplin is not the only place it has happened.
“We were storm chasing over on West Seventh Street,’’ said Eric Parker, 22, of Joplin. “We could see over by Riverton that the clouds were spinning like crazy. There was wind and lightning. It looked really bad.
“Since most tornadoes go to the northeast, we went south to 32nd Street and Central City Road. We thought we would get south of it,’’ said Parker.
What Parker did not know was that the May 22 tornado was a right-turning tornado that was headed to the southeast. His sister would drive them to Wildwood Ranch, the spot where the tornado would drop from the sky and where there is no road to go farther south.
“The inflow was unbelievable. I bet it was 60 mph. The air was rushing over the ground in front of you and being pulled up into the sky,’’ said Parker.
They went east on 32nd Street. They stopped to look back at the storm from a gravel parking lot near Country Club Road. They decided they had better keep moving.
“We were going to stop at the McDonald’s at 32nd and McClelland. But we realized we had better not be stopping,’’ he said. “We had that feeling something was not right. It was then that we could see this black mass coming at us.’’
What they saw was a rain-wrapped tornado that was rapidly exploding into an EF-5 with wind speeds of more than 200 mph. Rain was spinning horizontally around the tornado.
Kaylee Parker put the pedal to the metal, barreling past St. John’s Regional Medical Center. She then turned east on 26th Street. They were trying to get to their parent’s house at 21st Street and Mississippi Avenue.
“But there was no more running from it,’’ said Parker. “We ran into the Alps Liquor Store. We were 30 seconds at Alps before the building went.
“We got inside. The front door flew open. I locked the door. My ears started popping. Bottles started rattling. You could hear things hitting the building and sticking in it,’’ he said. “We started to go inside the beer cooler, but the owner pulled us into a corridor. We all just grabbed a hold of each other and sat down.
“I told my sister: ‘It’s right on us.’ The whole building started to go.’’
There were eight of them inside the store.
“After the first hit, it slowed way down. Some of the people were trying to get up and run off. We yelled at them: ‘It’s not over yet.’ That’s when the back end comes through and hits even harder,’’ said Parker.
It was during that lull in the storm, which lasted only a few seconds, that Kaylee Parker looked into the sky.
“I had my glasses on. I looked up and saw these vortexes, and saw debris flying in the air. It looked like I could see blue sky at the top,’’ she said. “I can’t put into words what I saw.
“I put a headlock on my little brother. Nothing is going to happen to him on my watch.’’
Her phone recorded the audio of the tornado as it happened.
“You can hear the jet plane noise for two minutes and 55 seconds,’’ she said. “We stood up and wondered how we were still alive.’’
A block wall fell on Parker’s back, shielding him and his sister from the flying debris. The beer cooler was destroyed. Their friend, Mac Wright, was injured. His back was exposed to flying debris.
“I was making the decision in my head that I was going to be hit by something and that I was going to go to sleep at any time,’’ said Wright. “Never in my life had I waited to die.’’
Bloodied and battered, they walked out of what was left of the Alps store. What they saw unfold in front of them is something they will never forget. People were emerging from the debris like ants on an anthill.
“You would see a few boards move over there and someone would stand up. Then you would see something move over there and someone would crawl out of the debris,’’ Parker said. “There were people moving around in and climbing out of these piles of wood and metal.’’
Track of the eye
That experience, that sense of being inside the eye of the storm, has been reported by others.
Rance Junge, at the Pronto Pharmacy at 26th Street and Maiden Lane, said his building was destroyed, but he remembers thinking: “Oh gosh, we made it!”
He could see daylight, then, within a few seconds, he said the back wall of the tornado struck, and injured him with flying debris.
In the 2300 block of South Wisconsin, Jennifer and Danny Moore and their two children sought shelter in a bathroom.
“We thought we were through it because it calmed and you looked up and saw clear, and the next thing you know you saw it coming again.”
Weather experts who examined the Joplin tornado believe it was large enough and slow enough for someone to experience the sensation of being in the eye of the tornado.
A person in the eye experiences battering winds from the leading edge of the tornado, a lull where no wind is apparent and then battering winds again as the back edge of the tornado passes over them.
Davis, with the National Weather Service station at Springfield, said: “We believe the eye tracked from north of 32nd Street and Country Club Road to 29th and Winfield. From there, it went to 26th and McClelland, and to near St. Mary’s Church on 26th. It kept going east and then turned toward Franklin Technology Center and then traveled east along 20th Street to Range Line, and then near East Middle School,’’ he said.
The circular pattern in which the fence posts fell at the ballfield at Joplin High School, Davis said, suggests the eye might have crossed there.
Bill Gallus, a professor of meteorology at Iowa State University, who visited Joplin after the tornado, said, “We have known for the last five to 10 years, using portable radar in which we can get close to the tornado, that they have an eye-like region.
“A judge from Greensburg, Kan., described this eye-like effect. That tornado was over a mile wide and it was moving slow, much like the one in Joplin. We did the math and it makes sense,’’ said Gallus.
“At Parkersburg, Iowa, a mother was holding onto her children in a basement while they were levitating in the air during the tornado. The eye came over. They looked up and they saw all of this green. They thought it might have been tree leaves. They used the moment to dive under the staircase in the basement. It saved their lives.’’
EF-5 tornadoes hit Greensburg in 2007 and Parkersburg in 2008.
Gallus said the eye of a tornado would be smaller and short-lived in a small tornado.
“They have got to be wide and slow moving to experience this eye-like effect,’’ he said.
Greg Carbin, head of the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., said, “I believe it is possible. We have had very similar eyewitness accounts. You have the initial wall and the backside. In between, there is very little going on.’’
The tornado had wind speeds of approximately 200-plus mph. The wind speeds were calculated by Partha Sarkar, professor of wind engineering at Iowa State University in Ames, who observed that man-hole covers were lifted from the ground and that concrete parking stops had been moved by the tornado near St. John’s Regional Medical Center.
Using their weight and other atmospheric factors, he calculated what it would take to move them.
“For the manhole covers, it barely exceeds 200 mph. It’s at least that much. With the parking stops, they are in the 205 mph range,’’ he said.
Said Sarkar: “In a tornado of that size, the wind speed would be zero at the center. There would be a few seconds of no wind at the center line.
“We do know that the front side of this counterclockwise rotation is 25 mph more than the average speed of the tornado and that the backside is 25 mph less because of the forward motion of the tornado,’’ he said.
It was not until after they had walked away from the tornado that the three storm chasers realized what they had done.
“When we Googled the GPS coordinates of the storm and our GPS coordinates from our phone, it showed that we were in front of it the entire way until we got to Alps,’’ said Eric Parker.
When asked whether she would chase a storm again, Kaylee Parker, said simply: “Uh, no.’’
EF-5 it is
The Joplin tornado has been rated an EF-5, the most powerful tornado known, and there is no indication that its classification will change to something that is lower or higher, weather officials say.