COLUMBIA — From Columbia, the site of one of the deadliest tornadoes in U.S. history is a little more than four hours away by car.
“It will happen,” said Zim Schwartze, director of Emergency Management for Columbia and Boone County. “At some point we will have a disaster, small or large. Hopefully, it won’t be a Joplin.”
The May 22 tornado in Joplin has been categorized as a level EF-5, the highest level on the Enhanced-Fujita scale. The tornado took the lives of 161 people and injured more than 1,000.
Joplin wasn’t the only Missouri city to be hit by an unusually strong tornado this year. On April 23, Lambert-St. Louis International Airport was hit by an EF-4 tornado that didn’t cause any fatalities but left a great deal of damage.
Although Columbia is more likely to be hit by an EF-2 or EF-3 tornado, Schwartze said, tornadoes at that level can still do damage. In 1998, an F-3 tornado struck Columbia, stripped the facade from an MU records building and caused other damage.
All Columbia can do is prepare, and the city and campuses have done so. Plans are in place throughout the city.
The real challenge is persuading Columbia residents who might be desensitized to warning sirens and students who may not take alerts seriously.
The problem is, the sirens cry wolf. But there's still a wolf.
The psychology of warning sirens
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a report in July on the Joplin tornado.
The report found that the majority of Joplin residents did not immediately seek shelter after hearing warning sirens. Two people described in the report took surprising actions before taking shelter, like the man who “drove to a second restaurant where business was carrying on as usual” after one business shut its doors due to the sirens. Another “went on porch with family and had a cigar” because it “looked like a regular thunderstorm.”
In both cases, it took direct intervention by another person for these people to take cover. In the first, it was another customer at the restaurant pointing the tornado out to the management, and the business directing customers to take cover. In the second, it was the man’s wife yelling, “basement.” The report also notes that the tornado struck as he reached the top of the stairwell, destroying his home just above his head.
Drew Warden, an MU junior from Joplin, was one of those people who didn’t go to the basement at first when he heard the sirens in Joplin.
“You always go outside and look, see what’s going on,” he said with a smile.
By the second siren, menacing weather including hail convinced him to go to the basement as it "looked like something might happen."
But the lack of response could be partly explained by another fact cited in the report: 76 percent of all tornado sirens turn out to be false alarms.
Claire Prather, an MU freshman from Joplin, said she understands why people in Joplin ignored the initial sirens. She said that her family sometimes didn’t go to their basement after hearing sirens.
“A lot of the people hear the sirens so often and then nothing happens, so they don’t take it seriously,” she said. “It was such a common occurrence, and they feel like the chances of it actually touching down or hitting them are so slim.”
Schwartze doesn’t believe the false alarm rate is relevant to Columbia. She said that since coming into her position in May of 2009, she has sounded the sirens fewer than five times.
“Generally, it seems like the tornado sirens don’t really go off often,” Warden said about Columbia. He said sirens are much more frequent in Joplin.
“When I sound the sirens, it’s serious,” Schwartze said. She goes by specific rules for deciding when to activate the sirens for Boone County.
“We don’t wait for the National Weather Service,” Schwartze said. She added that on May 25, she hit the sirens without a warning from the National Weather Service, as their methods weren’t picking up what was being seen from the ground.
All of Boone County is a siren-protected area. That means that any time one of these criteria is met, sirens will be activated throughout Columbia and Boone County. There are 40 sirens throughout Boone County, and they are situated so that sound will carry.
Schwartze does not see this as contradicting her assertion that there is not a problem with false alarms in Boone County. She said the sirens are not only a direction to take cover wherever you are but a direction to gather information as well.
She also said that the sirens will not be reactivated unless something drastically changes since the first siren or another dangerous storm arrives.
Tornado siren procedure varies from county to county, and although in Joplin a second siren was sounded as the storm intensified, Schwartze said an intensification would not warrant a second siren in Boone County.
“A tornado’s a tornado in our book,” Schwartze said, explaining that it is often impossible to tell how intense a tornado is in the moment. The Enhanced-Fujita scale is only applied after the event based on measurements of the storm.
Boone County does not have an all-clear signal, so all sirens are a warning.
Taking care of students
Although Missouri residents are familiar with tornadoes to the point of many being desensitized, many students at the city’s college campuses are from outside of the state.
More than 7,000 of the 32,415 students at MU, as of the fall of 2010, were not residents of Missouri when they applied to the university. Of those, 1,488 are international students.
“A lot of international students come here and tornadoes (are) a completely unknown phenomenon to them,” said Frankie Minor, director of Residential Life at MU.
This blend of over- and underexposure to tornado preparedness brings challenges to those responsible for their safety. There is also a matter of students’ way of viewing the world.
“Young adults are a hard audience,” Columbia Fire Department Battalion Chief Steven Sapp said. “The majority believe that they are somewhat invincible, that nothing bad should happen to them."
College campuses throughout Missouri have developed emergency action plans for disasters. MU, Stephens College and Columbia College have emergency response teams, which are made up of representatives from campus facilities and departments, who carry out the procedures of the plan. As part of these plans, many college campuses have set up emergency alert systems as a quick way to communicate with students when there is an emergency.
The MU emergency alert plan sends students information in an emergency via email, text, pager or voicemail. Terry Robb, director of Division of Information Technology at MU, said all students at the university automatically receive email alerts but have to sign up on their own to receive other alerts.
“The text messaging alert system is limited because it’s limited in the number of characters you can include,” said Katie Whitman, project specialist for administrative services and MU alert. She said text messages aren't always used if email would be more effective.
There has also been reported trouble with students receiving messages with certain phone carriers, which the university is working to fix.
Days after the Joplin tornado, Missouri University Science and Technology became the first school in the University of Missouri system to send tornado warning notifications. On May 25, a tornado touched down in Phelps County. Text notifications beat the sirens by five minutes.
All campuses in the UM System now send text alerts when the campus is under a tornado warning.
MU used the text alert system in the February blizzard to notify students that classes were canceled.
Like MU, Missouri Southern State University in Joplin now uses a text notification system to alert students and faculty in an emergency. The university also plans to install loudspeakers across campus to alert students and staff about an emergency and direct them to emergency shelters. This is a part of a plan funded by an emergency grant the university received in October 2010 by the Department of Education.
“There’s definitely a stronger focus on creating an emergency response plan for students,” Missouri Southern State University Vice President for Student Affairs Darren Fullerton said. “The tornado really brought this home for us.”
New dorms, few basements
Specific actions are also taken in these events to prevent students from endangering themselves.
Kristen Temple, associate director of MU Residential Life, said there is a list of procedures for dorms to go through that is customized to the needs of the dorm. She said that when there is a tornado warning, dorms that have balconies lock them to prevent students from going outside to watch the storm.
Students with special needs are also checked on in case of an emergency.
Most MU dorms have basements where students can go in case of a tornado. However, nine of 23 dorms do not have basements. Of these nine dorms, eight were renovated in 2004 or later.
Larry Hubbard, director of MU Planning, Design and Construction, said that the decision not to build basements in many of the newer residence halls was based on several factors. He said that many locations had utility lines buried beneath them, and these would be expensive to move to build a basement. He also said that use of the space was considered; planners wanted the space to be useful for students.
So, in the dorms that don’t have basements, students are directed to the lowest and safest floor, according to Harriett Green-Sappington, associate director of Residential Life. Within these floors there are “safe areas” away from windows and doors where students go during drills.
In Center, the safe area is the second floor between the elevator and the east stairwell. This is because students would have to go outside to reach the first floor due to the way the building was designed.
In College Avenue, the area is listed as the “western half of the floor from the front desk to the elevators, not near the laundry room, study, kitchen or lounges.” That designation is necessary because all of those areas listed include large panels of glass. The facade of the building involves a lot of glass, including both ends of the building, the stairwells, the study lounges and the doors of the building on the other side of the front desk from where the students would shelter. It’s a tight squeeze, and if the students don’t fit, the procedure is to stack in the same formation for as many floors as it takes.
Tornado and fire drills are performed in the dorms on the MU campus every year to familiarize students with where to go in case of these events.
Temple receives checklists from residence hall coordinators with feedback on how students comply in drills. Typically, a few students refuse to participate.
“Oftentimes, they don’t perceive that there’s a real danger,” Temple said.
A lot of the time, students tell staff they don’t have to participate because it’s probably a false alarm or a tornado won’t actually hit Columbia.
Other reasons students give for not participating include, “I am too tired to participate,” “My mom said I don’t have to,” or “I don’t have to do what people tell me.”
Some students don't comply because they wear noise-canceling headphones in their rooms and cannot hear drill sirens.
But after a hall coordinator speaks with them, most students will comply, though some students are more resistant. Some students will raise their voice and be argumentative, Temple said.
After a drill, hall coordinators follow up with students who didn't comply or resisted. Students who resisted more adamantly are required to do a research project on emergency safety, such as speaking to a fire marshal about fire safety or reading the NOAA report and then writing a paper.
“We try to keep students aware and use drills as an educational moment,” Temple said.
But students’ sense of “invincibility” is hard to fight, she said. It has lessened some after Joplin, but that may only last a little while.
It takes a severe incident for people to take emergency preparedness seriously, MU Assistant Fire Marshall Shawn McCollom said.
Joplin might have been one such event for tornadoes. Schwartze said that when she activated sirens on May 25, days after the Joplin tornado, she saw people who had been walking around downtown literally run for cover in nearby buildings.
Prather says the people of Joplin react differently to tornado sirens now than they did before.
“Joplin has changed,” she said. “Everyone takes the sirens seriously now and pays attention. Now the reality is that this has happened, and everyone takes it more seriously.”
Warden said he is “definitely” more likely to find shelter if the sirens go off, and that includes here in Columbia. He said that one night right after the tornado, the sirens went off again, and his family went to the basement. Some family members even slept in the basement that night.
But for public safety officials on MU's campus, there have been — fortunately — very few teachable, disaster moments since May 8, 1999, when a fire started at Sigma Chi fraternity after a candle ignited an enclosed bunk bed. An MU freshman died.
“Events have a shelf life of ‘teachable moments,’” Columbia Fire Department Battalion Chief Sapp said. “In this case, the fire and death occurred on the last day of classes and in fact, after the majority of the students had left for the summer recess. We lost our teachable moment because there was no audience.”
So campus officials at MU rely on drills and demonstrations to get the message across.
One of these demonstrations is the annual Fire Factor, where a mock dorm room is set on fire in front of a large crowd at Speaker's Circle to show just how fast it will burn.
There isn't a simulation for a tornado, but there is a case study of what the worst can be just four hours away.
Sirens now have Prather's attention. She has friends who lost everything in the Joplin tornado, and taking cover for a few minutes is worth it.
“The sirens aren’t a joke,” she said. “Weather can change lives and end lives. Everyone in Joplin would agree this was a life-changing experience.”