Measuring building safety: most April 27, 2011 tornado damage done by EF1 or EF2 winds

Mark Hammontree

In the days and months following the storms and tornadoes that ripped through Tuscaloosa and much of Alabama on April 27, 2011, UA professors, administrators and students took part, not only in rescues and clean up work, but also in research projects in various fields concerning tornadoes.

While some departments studied the aftermath of such a case of extreme weather and others attempted to research preventative and preparatory measures, all the researchers were united in their efforts to make the most out of the wide- reaching tragedy.

The storm’s destruction and fallout provided an opportunity for the study of everything from building structure and materials to real estate markets and the environment in the wake of a powerful tornado. Professors in the civil engineering department realized this window of study was time-sensitive but could potentially reveal industry-changing results.

Andrew Graettinger, a professor in the civil engineering department, worked with several colleagues from the University and other universities as part of a response team gathering information directly in the wake of the tornado to study the impact of the storm on how the mainly wood-frame structures were engineered.

“We looked at a phenomenon that hadn’t been engineered for before, which is tornadoes,” Graettinger said.

This study was unique, Graettinger said, because in the past, people have assumed that nothing can be done to prevent an EF4 or above tornado from wreaking this level of destruction.

“The wind speeds on tornadoes are so high that when you see and EF5, EF4, or even an EF3 tornado, you cannot engineer for that to keep a wood-frame structure together,” Graettinger said. “But what we found in our study is that the vast majority of the affected area experiences much lower wind speeds than those EF3s and above, most of it is EF2 and below.”

Although the Tuscaloosa tornado was classified as an EF4, the study found around 85 percent of the area affected by the tornado in Tuscaloosa experienced EF2 level winds and below.

“Unless you looked at it spatially, which our team did, you would not be able to tell that there was an opportunity to be able to engineer for the problem,” Graettinger said. “So if you think about that, if we would engineer for EF2 level winds, and we’re going to engineer our wood-frame structures to handle those levels of wind, we would have a much lower level of damage than we saw, and that’s the direction that the research is going towards.”

Graettinger stressed, however, the importance of having safe rooms and shelters to go to because the path and center of the storm could not be predicted. He also said the study’s findings have not been added to building codes or standards yet.

“Currently, there is no tornado building code in the whole United States, so this is something that perhaps, starting from the studies we did here, we may see in the future,” Graettinger said.

Although this particular study has ended, Graettinger said the civil engineering department is still studying the effects of natural disasters.

“The idea of engineering for natural hazards is certainly still going on,” he said. “We have our large-scale laboratory here where we can do earthquake testing, we’re talking about developing a debris-launching cannon to test different building materials, walls, structures.”

While Graettinger and his colleagues studied ways to engineer buildings to prevent widespread destruction in the future, the Alabama Center for Real Estate attempted to gauge the immediate impact the storm had on the real estate market in Tuscaloosa.

“The purpose of the report was to present the short-term impact and to provide a preliminary analysis of the disaster upon Tuscaloosa’s residential real estate market,” Grayson Glaze, executive director for the center, said. “The primary focus of the report was housing units as defined by the US Census Bureau, but to a greater degree, the existing single-family home.”

The study found that, while the tornado certainly had a large impact on the realty market and impacted approximately 5,144 homes or 12.6 percent of Tuscaloosa’s housing inventory, the city’s housing market “proved very resilient and truly persevered.” Glaze said the study’s findings were also used by local and state officials when applying for relief funds and have been used to help plan the rebuilding effort.

“Community leaders and the private sector often refer to our studies as they strategically plan for Tuscaloosa’s future and regrowth in the aftermath of the tornado,” Glaze said.

UA students and student groups have also been active in fields concerning storm research since April 27, 2011. One student group, the UA Meteorological Society, was actually formed just weeks before the tragic storm hit.

“To say that we were ‘baptized by the fire’ is a bit of an understatement,” Chris Amalfitano, vice-president of public relations and a founding member of UAMS, said.

“Having served the community on April 27 and in the days and weeks following the storm, we realized that we had a callOVERSET FOLLOWS:ing that required us to expand our horizons,” Amalfitano said.

In the almost two years since those storms, UAMS has worked to develop an interest and an awareness of weather in the UA community and in West Alabama in general.

“Our goal is always to keep students and members of the West Alabama community informed of weather conditions for our area, and to provide them with concise information that could save their lives,” Patrick Reilly, president of UAMS, said. “We have been approached numerous times this spring to conduct severe weather safety and preparedness programs in various dorms on campus.”

The group also has a storm tracking team that helps spot and alert storms as part of the regions early-warning systems.

“Storm Spotter training has been the foundation of our education in tracking and forecasting storm systems,” Reilly said. “We also have relationships with storm chasers and meteorologists throughout the Southeast who provide diverse contributions to our philosophies. A lot of ‘at-home’ studying and preparation goes into our forecasts and response to storm systems.”

One common goal amongst all of these students and faculty is the hope that never again will a tornado have the same outcome as the April 27, 2011 tornado.

Graettinger stressed the importance of having a place to go that can withstand even the highest level tornado winds, noting the difference between a “safe spot” and a “safe room.”

“A safe spot, for example an interior room or a basement or bathroom where there’s some plumbing and some additional structure around, if that’s the best place that you have to go, certainly go there, but that will not withstand these high wind speeds, EF4, EF5, even EF3. You’re going to be in great danger, so a safe room, which is engineered to handle these 3, 4, and 5 levels, is definitely needed,” Graettinger said. “These may be community safe rooms, like at an apartment complex; there may be one safe shelter that everyone can go to, or you can have one in your home.”

Both Graettinger and UAMS said the University has done a great job of advancing their extreme weather policies. However, it is ultimately up to each person to know what to do when a tornado hits.

“The University’s advancements in regards to severe weather preparation and response are important, but the true test of severe weather safety relies on the individual,” Amalfitano said. “The University can put all the precautions in place they possibly can, but it is up to each student to continue to be weather aware and have their own plan in place.”

Graettinger said students should know where they are going to go should a storm happen.

“And storms will happen, it’s just a fact of life,” Graettinger said. “So you need to have a plan.”