The Joplin Tornado Underscores The Importance Of Text Messaging


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At the risk of sound redundant, we want to continue to underscore the value of SMS as a communications medium in trying times. Apparently, according to news reports, a man was rescued after the recent tornado in Missouri when he texted his friend: “I’m alive.”

As with many world and regional events during this year and previous years, the devastating tornado that struck Joplin, Mo., on May 22, 2011, resulted in a surge of attempted communications as friends and families reacted and attempted to contact loved ones. 

In such regional or localised situations, it is well known that many communications facilities would be overwhelmed or rendered unusable. But, given the highly redundant architecture of today’s mobile networks, one would expect that many tower locations would be spared and potentially continue to operate.

Additionally, from a more regional sense, the wider region should continue to support increased communications traffic immediately after the event.

After the Joplin, Mo. tornado, we were able to compare the SMS traffic, originating from area code 417, immediately before and after the event with the previous two days.  As expected, in the minutes leading up to the tornado hitting at approximately 5:40 p.m. CDT, the SMS traffic was within “normal” amounts for that time of day. 

By 6:00 p.m., traffic was up 30 per cent, and by 7:40 p.m., as word spread, SMS traffic peaked at more than 106 per cent  above normal levels.  It remained high throughout our evaluation period.  In our sample, all US Tier 1 operators were represented, as were several NUVO and Tier 2 operators that utilise 417 area codes.

SMS Tornado

While we didn’t drill down to the specific Joplin area (NPA-NXX), the areawide traffic still surged dramatically, underscoring the viability of SMS as an urgent and reliable communications channel. There were other storms in the area. Springfield, Mo., the largest population centre in area code 417, was also struck by severe weather, as were other communities.

The main Joplin tornado warning was issued at 5:17 p.m., after a separate warning for “NE Joplin” on a different storm at 5:09 p.m.  We did not note any unusual increase in person-to-person messaging, leading up to the tornado starting to hit Joplin and immediate areas.


The tornado was extremely tragic. But, unlike other natural disasters, we noted that this had localised impact.

Outside of area 417 and a few adjacent area codes — especially in Oklahoma — overall messaging was not statistically impacted. 

Still, as our graphics show, the localised SMS traffic effectively doubled after that, whereas voice — both fixed and mobile — may have been disrupted due to communications infrastructure damage. SMS can work with lower signals, when a mobile voice call may not be possible.

The best way to do yourself and family a favour in the event of a natural disaster is to sign up for severe weather text alerts.  Places like the Weather Channel and many localities offer these. Without ample warning, the situation in Joplin and in Alabama last month would have been much worse.  SMS alerts can reach you when you are away from home.

Finally, don’t forget that you can always text REDCROSS to 90999 to donate $10 to help the Red Cross support relief for recent tornado victims across the country as well as the recent flooding victims.

This post originally appeared at the Sybase 365 blog.