Storm Shelter Expert Shares Concerns with Congress

National Wind Institute research professor says public misinformation is greatest challenge.

Kiesling testified before the House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Research.

Ernst Kiesling, NWI research professor, testified before the House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Research.

As victims try to untangle their lives left behind in the wake of Oklahoma’s recent deadly tornadoes, a Texas Tech University wind engineer commends the work of forecasters on tracking and locating storms, but urges that a more consistent message to the public regarding reaction and response.

Ernst Kiesling, research professor at Texas Tech’s National Wind Institute (NWI) and executive director of the National Storm Shelter Association, testified before the House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Research today (June 5).

Kiesling said information presented by some news media during recent tornadic events left much to be desired. He especially was referring to coverage of the May 31 El Reno tornado, when residents who could not find shelter underground were encouraged to outrun the storm. The result was highway gridlock that trapped thousands in their vehicles as the tornado moved through the city.

El Reno Tornado - May 31, 2013

Some media outlets encouraged residents to flee storm's path during El Reno tornado. (click to enlarge)

“Some of the advice given in the last couple of weeks is both deadly and wrong,” Kiesling said. “Having to be underground to survive an EF-5 tornado is simply a falsehood that should be squelched. We have all types of shelters available today that meet standards and guidelines, and provide near-absolute occupant protection from extreme winds, even an EF-5.”

Kiesling was in Washington, D.C., speaking on behalf of H.R. 1786, introduced by Science Committee member Randy Neugebauer (R-TX) on a recent visit to NWI.

“Texas Tech is doing some of the most innovative windstorm research in the country,” Neugebauer said in a statement. “The work being done here has practical applications that help us build stronger, safer buildings.”

The legislation would reauthorize the National Windstorm Impact Reduction Program, which directs the National Institute of Science and Technology, the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help reduce loss of life and property from windstorms.

NWI team inspects storm shelter in wake of Moore tornado.

NWI team inspects storm shelter performance following EF-5 tornado in Moore, Okla. on May 20, 2013.

The agencies do this through coordinating federal, state and local government efforts, along with the private sector and academia, including NWI.

During testimony, Kiesling also pointed out the lack of building code enforcement, largely at the local level.

“There are many disconnects that occur between the agencies and researchers that generate good research, and what happens in the field,” he said. “Education, I think, is the best way to address that.”

Lawmakers also heard from Debra Ballen, senior vice president of public policy at the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety, and David Prevatt, an assistant professor in the University of Florida’s Department of Civil and Coastal Engineering.

The witness panel agreed that continuity in funding further research is needed to understand windstorm events. They also suggested the incorporation of social science to enlighten the public that structural improvements are both necessary and affordable.

“We need to do a better job convincing people that this should be a priority over a granite countertop,” Prevatt said.

The complete video testimony is available online at C-SPAN.

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National Wind Institute

National Wind Institute (NWI) is world-renowned for conducting innovative research in the areas of wind energy, wind hazard mitigation, wind-induced damage, severe storms and wind-related economics.

NWI is also home to world-class researchers with expertise in numerous academic fields such as atmospheric science, civil, mechanical and electrical engineering, mathematics and economics, and NWI was the first in the nation to offer a doctorate in Wind Science and Engineering, and a Bachelor of Science in Wind Energy.

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