Florida's hurricane lessons could save homes, lives in tornado-prone areas

May 13, 2011

Scientists combing through the destruction left behind by the massive twister that swept through Tuscaloosa, Ala., last month say beefing up building codes and retrofitting existing homes with building techniques honed in hurricane-battered Florida could save property and lives in tornado-prone areas throughout the country.

“Since Andrew struck Florida back in 1992, Florida’s building construction professionals and building officials have continually improved their structural load paths, which means that connections between the roof and wall framing and between wall to foundations have been strengthened,” said David O. Prevatt, an assistant professor of civil and coastal engineering at the University of Florida and principal investigator of the project. “In contrast, older homes in Tuscaloosa had mainly toe-nailed rafter connections, and almost none had adequate foundation anchors.”

The project is being funded by a National Science Foundation RAPID Response Grant for Exploratory Research to investigate and gather data about wind damage to, and performance of, wood-frame structures in the affected areas.

Prevatt acknowledged that there is no defense against the most devastating tornado winds, which can top 200 mph, but he said he believes improvements in home construction can make houses and apartment buildings safer in less-severe tornado conditions.

“There is no magic bullet here. An EF4 or EF5 level wind will still level even the best-constructed homes in its path,” Prevatt said. “The challenge facing us is to somehow improve performance of our existing homes so that more of them can survive the less intense EF0 to EF2 tornado and by so doing better protect its occupants.”

The NSF recognized the urgency with the grant request because this type of data on structural failures is perishable; once debris removal begins, there is no way to analyze the performance of the wood structures, said John W. van de Lindt, a professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering at the University of Alabama. The grant is being provided to UF to work in close collaboration with UA and other researchers.

The research team inspected the 5.9-mile affected tornado path in Tuscaloosa on May 2-5 to analyze wood-frame structures that were not damaged by trees. The team received clearance from FEMA’s Engineering Division and inspected 150 structures, including single-family homes (one- and two-story) and apartment complexes. Collecting more than 3,000 photos, the team determined the EF-Scale rating in relation to damage for each of the 150 structures, with values ranging from EF0 to EF5, depending on the location within Tuscaloosa.

Based on that data, Prevatt said, states that experience frequent tornado activity would be well-advised to beef up their building codes to more closely resemble those in the Sunshine State. However, he said, even more lives and property could be saved by encouraging homeowners to retrofit their houses to be more wind-resistant.

“Retrofitting is a costly business but the opportunities might exist immediately after a disaster to build back something that will perform better than what was lost. This requires effort to go above and beyond the minimum current requirements of the building code,” Prevatt said. “But realistically what price are you willing to pay for your family’s safety? “

Other team members include:

• Andrew Graettinger, associate professor of structural engineering and materials, and David Grau, assistant professor of construction engineering and management, both at The University of Alabama
• William L. Colbourne, director of wind and flood hazard mitigation, Applied Technology Council
• Rakesh Gupta, professor of wood science and engineering, Oregon State University
• Shiling Pei, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, South Dakota State University
• Samuel Hensen, branch engineering and technical manager, Simpson Strong-Tie Co.

The team will continue working with the National Science Foundation grant and the International Residential Code to begin the process of making changes to ensure load paths are enhanced to better protect the life safety of the occupants. The research team also will be available for the city of Tuscaloosa and surrounding areas as the rebuilding process begins.

Explore further: Lifting the brakes on fuel efficiency

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Protecting lives, buildings from earthquakes

Jan 10, 2011

Several major earthquake events around the world over the last few years have led to significant damage and loss of lives. Many of these quakes caused buildings to collapse related to the construction quality ...

Earthquakes: Bracing against the shaking

Oct 08, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- An Arizona State University geotechnical engineer says the U.S. should learn from what New Zealanders did to withstand a recent powerful quake – and how they could have prepared even ...

Recommended for you

Lifting the brakes on fuel efficiency

Apr 18, 2014

The work of a research leader at Michigan Technological University is attracting attention from Michigan's Governor as well as automotive companies around the world. Xiaodi "Scott" Huang of Michigan Tech's ...

Large streams of data warn cars, banks and oil drillers

Apr 16, 2014

Better warning systems that alert motorists to a collision, make banks aware of the risk of losses on bad customers, and tell oil companies about potential problems with new drilling. This is the aim of AMIDST, the EU project ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Ex-Apple chief plans mobile phone for India

Former Apple chief executive John Sculley, whose marketing skills helped bring the personal computer to desktops worldwide, says he plans to launch a mobile phone in India to exploit its still largely untapped ...

Airbnb rental site raises $450 mn

Online lodging listings website Airbnb inked a $450 million funding deal with investors led by TPG, a source close to the matter said Friday.

Health care site flagged in Heartbleed review

People with accounts on the enrollment website for President Barack Obama's signature health care law are being told to change their passwords following an administration-wide review of the government's vulnerability to the ...

A homemade solar lamp for developing countries

(Phys.org) —The solar lamp developed by the start-up LEDsafari is a more effective, safer, and less expensive form of illumination than the traditional oil lamp currently used by more than one billion people ...

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Filipino tests negative for Middle East virus

A Filipino nurse who tested positive for the Middle East virus has been found free of infection in a subsequent examination after he returned home, Philippine health officials said Saturday.

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...