Things will never be the same.

Now that we’ve seen the worst-case scenario become a real-life catastrophe, there’s no room left for taking lightly warnings about “severe” weather. Any time a storm system bearing that label is heading for Texas County, I, for one, will have a higher level of awareness than before.

As I’ve discussed at length with several people, I’m still having a hard time relating to the fact that a massive tornado blew apart a large portion of a city in Missouri.

A city. I think that’s the part I’m struggling to come to grips with.

This type of thing only happens in small towns in western Kansas or northern Alabama, not in a sizeable city in Missouri. Tornados are supposed to tear up small-town neighborhoods and squares, flip over mobile homes and rip apart ancient oak trees, not completely level a gigantic swath in an urban area.

And an EF5?

Tornados are supposed to be scary, destructive and even deadly, and they can change everything in an instant (just ask the people of Stockton, Mo. who gained first-hand knowledge in 2003, the citizens of Picher, Okla., who saw their town blown apart in 2008, and the folks from several towns in Alabama that were bludgeoned by an outbreak of twisters only a couple of months ago).

But EF5s don’t set down in cities and plow ahead at full force for six miles. Until now.

Doug Davison

Doug Davison

The half-mile wide beast that disassembled a large portion of Joplin and forever altered the city’s personality proved that tornadoes do not consider more heavily populated areas to be out of bounds. To the contrary, the worst one on record chose such a route.

So, other than a relatively short-lived storm loaded with tightly-concentrated destructive power looking for a place to become a huge problem, just what is an EF5 tornado?

Tornadoes were originally rated on the Fujita Scale, named for its inventor, Ted Fujita, a University of Chicago meteorologist who created the scale in 1971 based on the wind speed and type of damage caused. There were six levels on the original F scale:

• F0 – 40-72 miles per hour

• F1 – 73-112 mph

• F2 – 113-157 mph

• F3 – 158-206 mph

• F4 – 207-260 mph

• F5 – 261-318 mph

In February 2007, the Fujita Scale was replaced by the Enhanced Fujita Scale. The “EF” scale is similar to its predecessor, but includes revisions designed to better reflect examinations of tornado damage surveys and align wind speeds more closely with associated storm damage.

There are again six levels:

• EF0 – 65-85 mph

• EF1 – 86-110 mph

• EF2 – 111-135 mph

• EF3 – 136-165 mph

• EF4 – 166-200 mph

• EF5 – 200+ mph

So with winds just above 200 miles per hour, an EF5 like the one that tore through Joplin would “only” have qualified as an F3 according to original Fujita ratings.

I know, I know – like that really matters to anyone whose close relative has been crushed under the weight of a two-story apartment building or whose home or business has been reduced to a pile of rubble lying on top of a foundation. The ratings are meaningless to the victims – they only exist for the purpose of educating meteorologists and attempting to convey to the public how beastly a given tornado was.

Then there’s the “multi vortex” factor, which may apply to the tornado that destroyed so much of Joplin.

Apparently the thing may have had more than one funnel swirling around within the visible “debris cloud.” You’re basically talking about two or three singularly strong tornados more or less dancing around each other as they move in a similar direction.

That’s downright nasty.

This year’s tornado activity in the United States has prompted 2011 to be called the worst year for tornadoes since 1953, when an early June weather system cut a path of doom and destruction as it made its way across the country.

Whatever the case, any time I hear distant rumbling or see lightning on the horizon, I’ll feel a little different than I used to. Because of the Joplin tornado of 2011, there’s always going to be that slight wonder and trepidation, like “is this going to be the big one?”

While I was working as a sports editor for a community newspaper in northeast Georgia, members of the local high school wrestling team sometimes wore T-shirts before and after matches that had the phrase “now you know” printed on the back.

Who could have envisioned an EF5 attack on Joplin? Not just a tornado – an EF5.

Now we know.

Doug Davison is a writer, copy editor and advertising representative for the Houston Herald. Email: ddavison@houstonherald.com.

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