Texas Tech University

Researchers Receive NSF Grant to Study Tornado Damage on Low-Rise Buildings

George Watson

May 11, 2017


The grant will help researchers understand the effects of tornadoes on buildings such as schools and residences in order to improve their ability to withstand the devastating winds.

1970 Lubbock Tornado
Aftermath from Lubbock Tornado (1970)

Out of the Lubbock Tornado of 1970 grew what would eventually become the National Wind Institute (NWI) at Texas Tech, which has propelled wind-related research on a monumental scale both in terms of understanding wind and its potential impact on humans and structures.

Thanks to the research efforts of those in the NWI, the Enhanced Fujita (EF) scale was developed to measure the destructive potential of wind from tornadoes. Researchers have also investigated the effects on buildings and how to make them safer and less susceptible to wind damage through the use of VorTECH, the second largest tornado simulator in the world.

With the 47th anniversary of the Lubbock tornado approaching, researchers in the NWI received a substantial grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The $350,001 grant will allow Delong Zuo, an associate professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Construction Engineering, and Darryl James, a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, to study tornado loading on low-rise buildings.

VorTECH simulates how tornadoes do their damage using eigh large fans to suck up approximately 160,000 cubic feet of air each minute.
VorTECH simulates how tornadoes do their damage using eight large fans to suck up approximately 160,000 cubic feet of air each minute.

"Tornadoes are among the most devastating natural hazards," Zuo said. "This NSF grant allows us to use VorTECH to advance the understanding of tornado loading on low-rise structures, such as residential and school buildings. Results from the research can be used to develop more tornado-resistant building designs and potential mitigation strategies for existing buildings. This ultimately will lead to reductions in the damage and fatalities during tornadoes."

Zuo said recent tornado-related events across the country have resulted in tremendous damage to structures and fatalities. Much of the damage has been done to homes and other low-rise buildings. A critical factor contributing to that damage is the fact that many of those buildings are designed only for straight-line winds traveling along the earth's surface and not the rotating winds from tornadoes that lead to severe damage.

Delong Zuo
Delong Zuo

He added there is also an inadequate understanding of tornadoes and tornado wind loading on structures. That is where this research comes into play. Zuo and James will attempt to formulate computational models that can be used to assess the impact rotating tornado winds could have on low-rise buildings, giving researchers a performance-based evaluation of low-rise buildings and their susceptibility to wind damage, thus showing them ways to reduce damage and fatalities.

"This award is built upon innovative ideas of Drs. Zuo and James as well as world-class facilities of the National Wind Institute," said NWI interim director Daan Liang. "It adds to an expanding list of externally funded projects focused on tornado characteristics and risks at Texas Tech University."

Darryl James
Darryl James

Researchers also will use VorTECH to test models with different types of roofs in various tornadic conditions and the NSF-supported Natural Hazards Engineering Research Infrastructure (NHERI) facility at the University of Florida to test those models in simulated straight-line winds to provide two distinct base data sets. That will give researchers the ability to study the differences between tornadic and straight-line wind; the impacts each have and the best ways to enhance building construction to withstand those winds.

"Twisters have simultaneously instilled fear and fascination for decades," said Guy Loneragan, interim vice president for research. "Yet despite the history of inquiry into this destructive weather phenomenon, solutions that improve structures and keep us safe are needed. The cutting-edge work of Drs. Zuo and James will provide transformative information that will ultimately lead to solutions that protect us all."  

The research and its findings also will be integrated into several educational and outreach programs, such as courses within the NWI's wind science and engineering doctoral program, the 4-H mentoring program, science camps and the annual Severe Weather Awareness Day in Lubbock, as a way to raise awareness of the impact of tornadoes and other natural disasters.

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