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Joplin receipt hitched a ride in a car, not a tornado

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 28, 2011 - A Joplin tire receipt that a researcher contended Friday had set a record by being transported 525 miles by a tornado turns out to have found its way to Indiana by a more traditional mode of transportation -- a vehicle.

"It got to Indiana by ground, not by air," said the apologetic scientist, tornado expert Ernest M. Agee of Purdue University, in a phone call to the Beacon on Saturday.

Agee said that, after national media outlets had picked up the Joplin receipt story on Friday, the Indiana couple who had found the folded piece of paper on their porch received a phone call from a relative who said he had gotten a tire repaired at the Joplin shop while driving from Texas to Indiana in mid-May to visit them.

The couple speculated that the receipt had found its way onto their porch when it stuck to the bottom of a cooler that the relative had put there -- but they didn't find the piece of paper until after the Joplin tornado struck. Thinking the receipt might be significant, they gave it to a coworker who knew Agee.

Although Agee maintains that a twister could possibly have transported a piece of paper that far, he now concedes that the old record of tornado transport remains unsurpassed - a cancelled check that traveled 210 miles between Kansas and Nebraska in 1915.

Read the Beacon's earlier story below:

When Tia Fritz found a folded receipt on the front porch of her house in rural Royal Center, Ind. this week, she was surprised to see that it came from a tire shop in Joplin, Missouri -- about 525 miles away.

Recalling news reports about the deadly tornado that struck Joplin on Sunday night, Fritz gave the receipt to a fellow hospital worker who knows Ernest M. Agee, the head of a tornado research group at Indiana's Purdue University.

When Agee saw the receipt, he connected the dots, did the calculations and realized that the receipt -- from Joplin Tire on Main Street in the Missouri city -- had traveled about 525 miles in about 12.5 hours -- with a mean "air parcel" speed of about 70 mph.

"It's the record by far" for debris transported by a tornado, Agee told the Beacon on Friday. In fact, his research found that the Joplin receipt's air flight more than doubled the previous known record -- a cancelled check, picked up by a November 1915 tornado in Great Bend, Kan., and found 210 miles away in Palmyra, Neb.

How is it that a piece of paper could travel more than 500 miles? "There is lofting, transport and then fallout -- a three-step process," explained Agee, a professor of earth and atmospheric science who leads Purdue's renowned Mesoscale Convection and Tornado Research Group.

"First, it's lofted up by the tornado and thunderstorm to the top of the troposphere," he said. "And then it's carried by the strongest winds. And eventually, when there is no further support from the convection, it's going to fall."

The transport of debris and paper by a tornado is directly proportional to the twister's intensity. With winds measured at more than 200 mph, the National Weather Service has classified the multi-vortex Joplin tornado as an EF-5 -- the strongest tornado in its rating scale.

While "The Wizard of Oz" featured a Kansas house carried to Oz by a tornado, the reality is more mundane for most heavy items hit by a twister. Citing scientific studies, Agee said a car might be thrown as far as half a mile or a piece of wood could be carried 50 miles. But paper debris can travel much farther.

"The thing that can go the farthest is a perfectly neutral and buoyant parcel" such as a hot air balloon, he said. But not many hot-air balloons get caught in tornadoes.

Agee said he concluded that the Joplin receipt set a record after reviewing a study supervised by John T. Snow, a tornado expert who is the former dean of Oklahoma University's College of Atmospheric and Geographic Sciences.

About a decade ago, Snow's graduate students at the university searched newspapers and other literature nationwide for reports of items transported by tornadoes.

"As far as I can tell, this [Joplin receipt] does in fact establish a new record for recognized debris transport" by a tornado, Snow told the Beacon on Friday. "And the previous [record] occured back in 1915."

"Of course, one can always argue that somewhere, in some newspaper, there's another account" of an unusual transport by tornadoes, Snow said. In fact, so many personal photos and documents were scattered by the twister that hit Alabama in April that a Facebook page was created to try to identify them.

"But I would say it's pretty unlikely" that any other scraps of paper traveled more than 500 miles, Snow said. "It appears that we have a new record set, sadly, with the Joplin event."

While the paper flight had a happy ending for tornado researchers, the plight of the tire company that wrote the May 13th receipt is not yet known. The Beacon got no answer when it called the phone number of the shop, which was located in the twister's path.

"I've called several times -- no answer," Agee said. "The company's address is right in the tornado track." He added: "The receipt could also have been sucked out of somebody's car by the tornado and lofted up."

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.