Renown meteorologist, engineer and Texas Tech alumnus Tim Marshall has surveyed some of the biggest storms in the last quarter century.
Time has not diminished structural/forensic engineer and meteorologist Tim Marshall affinity for storms.
“No matter how many disasters I witness and survey, I am still awed and amazed at the power of wind,” said Marshall.
Marshall's fascination with everything storm related is easy to trace from his childhood in Chicago to Texas Tech University.
“I like wind - clear skies are boring,” said Marshall. “My hometown was struck by a tornado in 1967 when I was 9 years old, and I wanted to know what force develops out of nothing more than air and water vapor. I read every book I could find on the subject and knew I wanted to study storms the rest of my life.”
When a powerful EF5 tornado tore through the city of Lubbock on May 11, 1970, injuring more than 1,500 people, killing 26, and inflicting hundreds of millions of dollars in damage, the storm would garner world-wide attention, especially in Oak Lawn, Illinois, home to young Tim Marshall.
“Lubbock to me was way out there,” Marshall said. “If it wasn't for the tornado, I really wouldn't have known about the city. I started hearing about this group of engineers who got together and formed the Institute for Disaster Research. I was pulled to Lubbock. I heard about the symposium on tornadoes, which was held there in 1976, and it brought in experts of tornadoes from all over the country.”
Marshall's draw to storms continued through his adolescence into early adulthood. It was during this time he began reaching out to Texas Tech, though ultimately, received his undergraduate degree in meteorology from Northern Illinois in 1978.
“I wrote to Texas Tech and Richard Peterson wrote me back and said, ‘If you come down here to Lubbock and study tornadoes, we'll give you some money.' I was a poor college kid so that sounded great to me,” said Marshall. “I visited Lubbock for the first time and it was a shock. I'm a city boy from Chicago and I have never seen a horizon that big.”
Marshall would join what is now called the National Wind Institute (NWI) at Texas Tech. He would go on to receive a master of science in atmospheric science (1980) as well as master of science in civil engineering (1983) from Texas Tech University's Edward E. Whitacre Jr. College of Engineering, becoming a structural and forensic engineer concentrating on damage analysis.
“They (NWI) started like a seed in the soil and have grown it into a tremendous organization renowned worldwide,” Marshall said. “To be a part of that is phenomenal for me. I'm really proud being with Texas Tech and my professors.”
Since 1979, Marshall has produced more than 100 publications, all of which resulted from extensive on-site research across the globe, conducting over 100 damage surveys of hailstorms, hurricanes and tornadoes. Some of those storms include EF5 tornadoes in Jarrell, Texas (1997), Bridge Creek, Oklahoma (1999), Greensburg, Kansas (2007), Alabama (2011), Joplin, Missouri (2011) and Moore, Oklahoma (2013). Marshall has surveyed a multitude of hurricanes as well including Alicia in Texas (1983), Hugo in South Carolina (1989), Andrew in Florida (1992), Opal in Florida (1995), Katrina in Mississippi (2005) and Ike in Texas (2008).
“Tornadoes are different from hurricanes,” Marshall said. “I can watch tornadoes at a safe distance. However, you become a prisoner trapped in the hurricane. There are many sounds. The howling of the wind through power lines and each gust seems to get stronger. At the peak of the storm, you are in white-out conditions with blinding rain blowing horizontally. You hear the snapping of trees, breaking of glass, and buzzing and popping of transformers exploding. Electric power flickers and then goes out. At night, the sky is lit up by a chorus of blue power flashes. I was amazed to watch the walls of my Airbnb apartment flex during Hurricane Florence. Each storm is different, and I always see something I hadn't seen before.”
In 2011, Marshall surveyed the destruction of the EF-5 tornado in Joplin, Missouri.
“I have seen many people lose everything including their livelihood. It's hard to imagine suddenly losing your house and your job. The damage is real and emotions are raw.”
Due to the destruction and devastation before him, Marshall said compartmentalizing becomes a necessary occupational focus.
“The destruction is mother nature's fingerprint,” Marshall said. “I look for clues on how buildings fail by studying the damage. We can learn from disasters. Disasters are sad, but they're always going to be there. We have a choice to either learn about disasters or not. I'd rather learn.”
Marshall has made a point over the course of his career to lend his expertise and knowledge to those he feels need to know the true damage a powerful storm can create: builders.
“I like to go to conferences where there are builders, roofers and people in the construction industry,” Marshall said. “The building code is a minimum. I think we should push to build better and there's nothing wrong with building above the code. It can be done economically.”
Even during Marshall's downtime, he is storm chasing. He has filmed more than 200 tornadoes and experienced some 17 hurricanes riding out Hurricane Ivan in Pensacola, Florida in 2004, Hurricane Katrina in Slidell, Louisiana in 2005 and Hurricane Ike in Galveston, Texas in 2008.
“I learn from every disaster,” Marshall said. “There's always something new to be learned and that's why I continually publish. To give an example, in Hurricane Laura, which hit the Lake Charles area, I rode that out in a parking garage and the next day surveyed the damage.”
Since 1983, Marshall has been working for Haag Engineering as a senior engineer. While surveying sites, Marshall says he tries to be a thorough as possible as discoveries no matter the size may translate to something even more practical structurally speaking.
Marshall saw an example of this while in Lake Charles.
“Structural engineers had designed their can lever luminaries or their streetlights to vane in the wind,” Marshall said. “When the wind gets really strong, rather than twisting, it would have a slip plate that would move the entire assembly and vane it with the wind. It saved hundreds of streetlights by making them move like that.”
Marshall's ability to monitor, assess and relay what he experienced has garnered some national attention over the years from The Discovery Channel, The Learning Channel, National Geographic Channel, The History Channel, The Weather Channel and Oprah Winfrey.
He has been a guest on NOVA and National Public Radio. Marshall was selected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to serve on their Quick Response Team and been a principal trainer in damage surveys for the National Weather Service (NWS).
Marshall has also served on the Severe Local Storms committee for the American Meteorological Society and has worked with the federal government's VORTEX2 project as part of the Center for Severe Weather Research (CSWR). In 2012, one of his other responsibilities with CSWR was to help implement Radar Observations of Tornadoes and Thunderstorms Project or ROTATE where he would deploy instrumented pods in the paths of tornadoes for in-depth observations of storm environments.
Marshall has maintained strong relationships with professors and staff at Texas Tech and credits them for his success calling them part of his family. For this reason, he has made one of many donations to come of his research to Texas Tech University Southwest Collection.
“I submitted 15 boxes of damage analysis that I've done over the years, which is just the beginning, said Marshall. “I have hundreds of boxes. I'm a pack rat and I really like to keep things. I've surveyed more than 100 disasters and have thousands of photographs, slides and videos.”
And it's conferences like the 14th Americas Conference on Wind Engineering hosted by NWI which provide a good deal of hope to Marshall about the future of the field.
“It's up to the students of tomorrow to invent new ways to analyze damage and models, to model buildings and how they're able to react against the wind,” said Marshall. “The future is bright and Texas Tech students will be major players here.”