Five years after an EF-5 tornado devastated Joplin the National Weather Service is still learning from that storm.

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Photo of the Joplin tornado from Twitpic.

The storm that spawned that tornado, which left a damage path up to a mile wide through Joplin and killed 161 people, seemed much less dangerous early on, Meteorologist Andy Boxell recalls.

“We knew that we had a good setup for severe weather,” Boxell told Missourinet, “but at the time it appeared that very large hail was going to be the primary threat with that.”

“We had a series of storm interactions – various mergers of different thunderstorms that occurred – and those likely combined in some way – we’re really not entirely clear how – to take what was a severe thunderstorm and turned it into really the monster that became the Joplin tornado,” said Boxell.

The Weather service has never stopped studying that storm, hoping to learn information that can help it issue potentially life-saving information to the public about future severe weather.

“Tornadoes of that strength just don’t happen but once every couple of years in many cases, and each one is very unique,” said Boxell. “We had a very rare event in terms of strength, and then unfortunately that occurred in an area that was highly populated and resulted in the incredible impacts that we saw.

Boxell said there are two things about severe weather he hopes the public learns from Joplin.
One is that even without a tornado, a severe thunderstorm still poses a threat to life and property.

“When you think about a thunderstorm that’s producing winds in excess of 70 or 80 miles per hour, maybe baseball or even softball-sized hail, even if there isn’t a tornado associated with it that’s still an incredibly dangerous situation to be in and so we encourage folks to take those severe thunderstorm warnings just as seriously as they would a tornado warning,” said Boxell.

The other thing is that large, destructive tornadoes like that in Joplin don’t always occur as part of a severe weather outbreak.

“Joplin was not a severe weather outbreak. It was really a singular, severe thunderstorm that produced an incredible amount of destruction, and so just because we’re not expecting a severe weather outbreak doesn’t mean that we couldn’t have those ingredients come together for one or two particular storms to create an incredible amount of distruction,” said Boxell.