Texas Tech University

Winds of Change: A Glimpse Into the Astonishing Career of Kishor Mehta

Amanda Bowman

January 10, 2018

Tornado Damage

From working on construction sites to becoming an expert on wind loads, Mehta has achieved much during his career.

The people of West Texas are all too familiar with wind. They live through the effects of it, like tornadoes, dust storms and the occasional haboob. They earn money from it by producing wind energy. But if you ask most people, they don't understand it. To most, it's just another part of nature.

Kishor Mehta

Kishor Mehta

To Kishor Mehta, Horn Professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental, and Construction Engineering in the Edward E. Whitacre Jr. College of Engineering at Texas Tech University, it's part of his life's work.

Humble beginnings

Mehta grew up in Gujarat, a state in India, where it was traditional for children to follow the guidance of their parents. Through the suggestion of his father, Mehta pursued a civil engineering degree.

“My father said, ‘If you follow civil engineering, then we can have a construction company,'” Mehta recalled. “Construction is where all the action is when it comes to civil engineering. After I finished my two years in college there, my father asked me if I wanted to go to the United States. I said, ‘Of course!' Everybody wanted to go to the United States, particularly in the 1950s. So, I left India and got my bachelor's and master's degrees at the University of Michigan.”

After earning his master's, Mehta went to work at the headquarters of a construction company in New York City. Though he enjoyed the city, Mehta was itching to work at an actual construction site. One of the company's sites was Glen Canyon Dam at Lake Powell in Page, Arizona. There had been a six-month strike, and once it ended, the original engineers were gone, providing Mehta the opportunity he needed.

“I had been familiar with the Glen Canyon Dam project because I studied the plans,” he said. “When they came back from strike, the engineers were gone because they had taken other jobs, so my bosses asked me, ‘Do you want to go?' and I said, ‘Sure!' They were concerned about sending someone who was from outside of the country to a construction site like that, but I was young and naïve, so I jumped at the chance. It pays to be naïve.”

Mehta teaching

Mehta traveled from New York to Arizona and, once he stepped off this plane, he was immediately greeted with culture shock. The company had promised him his own mobile home on the site, but that didn't happen.

“This was 1959. Things were quite different then,” Mehta said. “There were no civil rights laws. There was no Occupational Safety and Health Administration safety system. They had promised me they would have a mobile home for me to stay, but they didn't have it ready, so they put me in the barracks with all the labor force. I had a room to myself, but the showers, restrooms and cafeteria were common areas. Everybody would pick up their own lunch with three sandwiches, and I'd be lucky to get one. But, one was more than enough for me.”

Though his situation wasn't ideal, Mehta thrived at his job and was able to see multiple designs come to fruition during his time there. Still, he was unfulfilled.

“The construction site was so big that there was always something that needed to be designed to be built,” Mehta said. “So, that was my job. Whatever I designed, I would give it to the construction superintendent, and he would go build it, and that was the process. It was exciting. I loved my job, but there was nothing to do on the weekends. I didn't have a car, so I really couldn't go anywhere.”

As fate would have it, Mehta eventually found something to do on the weekends – court his future wife.

“My wife-to-be, Mary Ann, happened to be working at the site as a nurse, and she was single,” he said. “I told her, ‘I'd be happy to take you out to dinner except we need a car.' She said, ‘You can use my car as long as you drive it.' So, we went around for several months and then we agreed to get married.”

Turning the page

After getting married and having his first child, Mehta decided an active construction site was no place to raise a family. He told his wife he wanted to get his doctorate.

“She asked me, ‘What are you going to do with a Ph.D.? Are you going to teach?'” Mehta said. “I said, ‘No, no. I'm going to go into consulting work because they'll need someone with a doctoral degree.'”

With his wife's blessing, he began applying to different schools and was accepted to the University of Texas at Austin. While attending school, he also taught a few courses, which ended up altering his original course of action.

“The reason I never got into consulting was because I was given financial assistance through teaching, and I absolutely loved it. Maybe it's the power over the students,” Mehta joked, “but I thoroughly enjoyed it. So, when I was graduating, I told Mary Ann that a university is a good place to work.”

Texas Technological College

One of Mehta's advisers at the time told him about a college in Lubbock called Texas Technological College. In 1964, he decided to call it home…for a while.

Mehta & McDonald

Mehta with Jim McDonald

“My family and I came to Lubbock, and Mary Ann asked me how long we would be here,” Mehta recalled. “I told her, ‘Oh, maybe two or three years and then I'll see if I can find another university where we can go.'”

However, just like Mehta's previous plans, things didn't go the way he imagined.

“After we stayed for about three years, I found that I really enjoyed teaching and the school was new, so I was able to do what I wanted to do,” Mehta said. “The university and the department were depending on me, and my colleagues were also new. It was a young group of us working together: Jim McDonald, Ernst ‘Ernie' Kiesling, Joe Minor. We liked each other. We didn't have any competition among ourselves. Texas Technological College was expanding. We established a lab at that time, so things were going the way I liked.”

Mother Nature's ‘help'

Besides being able to shape the civil engineering department, Mehta enjoyed working in Lubbock because of its environment for high winds. When an incredibly destructive EF-5 tornado hit on May 11, 1970, it gave Mehta the opportunity to assess naturally occurring wind damage and was the catalyst that formed the Institute for Disaster Research, now known as the National Wind Institute (NWI).

Lubbock's EF5 Tornado - May 1970

“It was unfortunate for the city, but when the tornado occurred, to me, it was as if Mother Nature had done the testing for us for a wide variety of buildings,” he said. “True, we had no control over it. We didn't know what the wind speed was. But, doing the damage investigation in depth was feasible because it was in Lubbock, we could spend the time.”

Mehta, Minor and McDonald spent a year assessing the damage left behind by the tornado, research the National Science Foundation funded.

“We did a very thorough investigation for a variety of buildings which, when published, became a landmark because people didn't know anything about tornadoes at the time,” Mehta said. “So, we became ‘experts' from an engineering point of view on tornadoes at that time.”

The notoriety never went to Mehta's head, but his expertise on wind loads and wind damage did leave an impression on others.

“In 1976, I was asked to be the chairman of the American National Standards Institute, which is the committee that decides what the wind loads would be or should be, and that all buildings and structures in the country are designed around,” Mehta said. “I was able to work with the top people in the country, and we developed a wind load standard. It's a little more refined and has more details today, but the basic format we developed in 1982 is still valid.”

Wind Engineering Research Field Laboratory

Mehta pursued the basic understanding of the physics of wind-structure interaction through research at the Wind Engineering Research Field Laboratory (WERFL), which he established at Texas Tech. The goal was to measure real wind and pressures, then challenge people who used wind tunnels to duplicate the data.

Mehta in OH

Mehta in Xenia, Ohio - April 1974

However, capturing the wind data was a bit more time-consuming in the 1980s than it is today.

“We wanted to put a building out in the field because Lubbock has natural, high wind,” Mehta said. “So, a building was put together on a railroad track and was 30 feet by 45 feet by 13 feet. Back then, in 1987, sensors were extremely expensive. We only had sensors in one corner of the building. When we wanted to change the direction of the attack of wind, we had to push the building. So, that meant we needed four people, one at each corner, to push it. We did that for two years before a student said we could put the building on a motor. Someone would have to still turn it on and off, but we didn't have to push anymore.

“But the data we obtained literally has been used around the world because everybody who had a new wind tunnel said, ‘We want to duplicate the data of Texas Tech's building.' It provided a validity to their wind tunnel because, ultimately, a wind tunnel is an artificial wind. It's a much smaller scale, so you don't really know what you're going to get unless you can validate it with something.”

Assisting FEMA

Mehta was the primary person who provided technical expertise to develop design criteria for above-ground tornado shelters in residences and for community shelters in schools and public buildings. The mitigation program at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in the U.S. Department of Commerce developed the shelter designs in 1998.

Using Mehta's knowledge, FEMA published two documents: FEMA P-320, “Taking Shelter From the Storm: Building a Safe Room for Your Home or Small Business,” published on Dec. 1, 1998, and FEMA P-361, “Safe Rooms for Tornadoes and Hurricanes: Guidance for Community and Residential Safe Rooms,” first published in 2000.

In 1999, a massive tornado in Moore, Oklahoma, led then-President Bill Clinton to tell the citizens of Moore to consider including a tornado shelter when rebuilding their homes. This also kick started FEMA's grant program for shelters. As of January 2014, FEMA grant programs have provided approximately $928 million in federal funds toward the design and construction of nearly 25,000 residential and 2,300 community safe rooms in 25 states and territories.

Tornado Damage

Enhanced Fujita Scale

The horrific tornado that tore through Lubbock in 1970 inspired the way tornadoes are classified. Tetsuya “Theodore” Fujita, a professor of meteorology at the University of Chicago, proposed the Fujita Scale to assess the intensity of tornadoes. The U.S. National Weather Service adopted the F-Scale to rate each tornado that occurred in the country.

In 1974, when a super outbreak of tornadoes occurred, Mehta and other engineers realized the F-Scale rating was relatively coarse. It wasn't until 2000 when Mehta decided to pursue a way to improve the Fujita scale.

“My colleagues and I had an idea way back in the mid-1970s that perhaps the Fujita Scale F-4 and F-5 wind speeds were too high, because it's all based on damage,” Mehta recalled. “Fujita was a great meteorologist, but he wasn't an engineer. He didn't completely understand the building damage, but we did.”

So, Mehta gathered a diverse group of experts to work on creating an updated version of the Fujita Scale.

“Around 2000, about 10 engineers, 10 meteorologists and three or four insurance agents created a forum,” he said. “Through the forum, we came up with a plan that we can have a better, engineering-related approach to assess the wind speed in tornadoes. So, we revised the F-Scale to the Enhanced Fujita Scale, the EF-Scale. It took us four years because we had to get agreement among people – between the engineers and the meteorologists.”

In December 2004, the forum presented its research and findings to the National Weather Service. The weather service then ran all the information through its internal committees, which took some time.

“I was thinking, ‘All the work we've done isn't going anywhere,' because I wouldn't hear about it,” Mehta said. “In 2005, they said they were going to accept the EF-Scale, but they wouldn't implement it until 2007 because they had to develop the training modules and train the meteorologists at the weather service because they're the ones who assign the EF-Scale and most of them aren't engineers.”

The EF-Scale has an economic impact because it changes how much wind a building needs to be able to sustain.

“It makes a difference because, when you talk about shelters and critical facilities like nuclear power plants, the wind speed for which you need to design has been reduced quite a bit as compared to what it was,” Mehta said. “It provides a bit of economy without losing any reliability.”

Awards and achievements

Mehta's career at Texas Tech has spanned 52 years. During his time, he has made a significant impact and has been rightfully recognized. Some of his achievements include:

  • Member of the National Academy of Engineering (first member of the NAE at Texas Tech)
  • Distinguished Member of the American Society of Civil Engineers (only 300 out of 150,000 were selected nationwide)
  • Engineer of the Year by the South Plains Chapter of the Texas Society of Professional Engineers
  • Horn Professor
  • Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors

Though he has accomplished much, Mehta still remains a humble man who makes sure his colleagues get just as much credit as himself.

“All this work I have done and get credit for, it really involved my colleagues,” Mehta insisted. “They have a different specialty with which they're working and I'm able to work with them. They make me look good.”

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