John van de Lindt was no stranger to destruction.
For more than a decade in the early 2000s, the civil engineering professor studied natural disasters: earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunami surge.
Then a different kind of calamity struck close to home.
On April 27, 2011, a tornado touched down in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The mile-wide tornado, later rated an EF4 with winds of at least 166 mph, carved a 5.9-mile scar through the college town, destroying thousands of homes and killing 53 people.
More than 12% of the city was destroyed in the tornado’s wake.
Van de Lindt, a University of Alabama professor, was in Colorado at the time, tracking the tornado as it passed just two miles from his home where his family sheltered in place.
He flew home the next day, and once in his car he picked through a back route as roadways remained blocked.
Within days, van de Lindt was on the ground leading a University of Alabama research team to learn more about what happened — and how to be better prepared.
“As I was inspecting damage and documenting it, my first thought was, ‘I wonder if anyone can do anything about this,’” van de Lindt said.
He told himself that he couldn’t let the opportunity pass. He began research that would help define him as one of the leading infrastructure resilience experts in the country.
Tornadoes are increasing across the Southeast. In Alabama and Kentucky, between 2000 and 2020, the annual average of reported tornadoes more than doubled from the 20 years prior, according to a USA TODAY analysis of Storm Prediction Center data.
The annual average rose by more than 50% in at least Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee and Virginia.
Experts say a collision of conditions — including geography, climate and local governance — have made the South particularly vulnerable to deadly storms.
But the increase in tornadoes has helped spur a wave of research as experts try to develop interdisciplinary solutions to both mitigate the effects of tornadoes and speed community recovery when the inevitable strikes.
As van de Lindt surveyed the aftermath of the 2011 Tuscaloosa tornado, he realized there was a lack of research around tornadoes compared with other natural disasters he had studied.
“There was this feeling amongst even engineers that tornadoes are so powerful that nothing can really be done,” van de Lindt said.
“They’re these super-powerful, little tiny hurricanes that kind of form out there over land, and the damage is both intense and localized,” said Steve McNulty, director of the Department of Agriculture’s Southeast Climate Hub. “Tornadoes are incredibly strong; they’re just small relative to a hurricane.”
Weeks after Tuscaloosa was struck in 2011, a cataclysmic EF5 tornado descended on Joplin, Missouri, killing 161 people and destroying a quarter of that city.
Marc Levitan, a lead research engineer in wind-impact studies at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, was soon on the ground with a team to study both the engineering and social-science impacts of the storm, the deadliest single tornado recorded in the U.S. since 1950, when warning systems were far less developed.
“We had studied tornadoes prior to that, but 2011 was something of a landmark season,” Levitan said. “Was there one overriding cause (of the destruction)? No, there was a whole raft of different issues.”
The three-year investigation, with support from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, led to recommendations in the realms of building codes, emergency communications and shelter access. Among them:
- The NIST team found gaps in Joplin’s emergency-alert systems indicative of a national trend where a lack of widely accepted siren protocol has meant inconsistencies from town to town.
- Social science researchers also found Joplin might have desensitized residents to sirens by sounding them weekly for tests. Joplin has since amended its protocol and now tests sirens just once a month while working with surrounding communities to develop a more standardized siren system.
- NIST recommended a more uniform system for providing public storm shelters, including incorporating shelters in existing buildings, not just new construction.
- The team also determined that enhanced building standards are needed — even if little could be done for most construction to sufficiently withstand the most powerful tornadoes.
Researchers found that while the core of the tornado in Joplin carried EF5 wind speeds of greater than 200 mph, the majority of the area experienced EF2-range winds of 111 to 135 mph.
“There was a perception that you needed to design for the worst possible tornado,” Levitan said. “We don’t do that for our other hazards. Could you theoretically get a Category 5 hurricane in New England? Yes, but it would be rare, and we don’t design for that.”
Enhanced building standards and codes are starting to be adopted
The Joplin study has impacted codes and standards that are now beginning to trickle into American communities, Levitan said.
This month the institute expects to publish a new set of tornado “load provisions” that Levitan said will calculate tornadic forces
on everyday buildings for the first time.
“We can do something about this,” Levitan said. “It doesn’t mean we have to live in underground and concrete bunkers. Those are for the worst of the worst. That’s what storm shelters are for. I’m hoping it’s going to change the mindset as building owners and architects start to see that we can design for these.
“We might have to design more for the loads that we see on the hurricane coast. It’s a change, but it’s not so radical that we can’t do anything about it. We can design to resist the majority of the tornadoes.”
Work to that end is only just underway. Code updates can take years to trickle down into actual construction. Codes updated at the national level must typically be adopted by states and municipalities, and adoption and enforcement can often be piecemeal, which experts say can affect uniform resilience against natural disasters.
But researchers say the U.S. has seen a marked increase in storm shelters as awareness has spread. In 2018, new International Building Code guidance required newly built critical infrastructure such as schools and police stations to include storm shelters.
Alabama took it a step further, requiring new buildings at public universities to include storm shelters in the aftermath of what happened in Tuscaloosa in 2011.
A decade after his research began in Alabama, van de Lindt is now codirector at the Colorado-based Center for Risk-Based Community Resilience Planning, where a 14-university team is in the advanced stages of developing modeling software to help communities plan for and improve recovery from catastrophic events.
“The long-track tornadoes like the 2011 outbreak in Alabama, these tornadoes are beginning to hit populated communities more and more because they’re on the ground for 70, 80 miles,” van de Lindt said. “With new technology, we have the ability to simulate these things so we can actually investigate alternative policies and strategies. Before it would be a simple computer program, but now we can look at how an entire community might respond and make decisions.”
The software, using data and research pulled from real-world storms, looks at everything from income level to building codes in order to help leaders plan for the worst.
What city structures must be reinforced?
How many residents might need temporary shelter and for how long?
“A lot of the times we don’t have proper staffing in these counties to focus on all these aspects,” said David Vaughn, a Clemson University professor and expert in disaster management.
Vaughn recommends community leaders map out possible angles of potential disasters, so that a plan is in place as soon as it’s needed. But this can be difficult in small towns or counties with part-time first responders or city management, Vaughn said.
Van de Lindt hopes the modeling software will help communities figure out how to address these needs.
“There are going to be a certain amount of buildings that are going to be destroyed, but how do you protect life safety and how do you reduce damage so you can recover quicker?” van de Lindt said.
Cindy Sanford recounts barely escaping the Beauregard tornado
Cindy Sanford recounts barely escaping the Beauregard tornado as she stands among the debris that was her home.
Experts agree there is no quick fix, no single building code or warning system that will work across the board, but emerging research and technology can build the foundation for a safer future, Levitan said.
“We can’t just pick one thing that will be the magic bullet. One thing won’t solve everything,” Levitan said. “You can have a robust series of strategies, buildings that are better designed and more tornado shelters available, more public shelters for folks who don’t have options in their own buildings. We’re also broadly continuously working to improve tornado warning times.
“All of these things will hopefully continue to lead us to increased public safety. “
Contributing: Adam Friedman in Tennessee and Gabriela Szymanowska in Mississippi
Contact Montgomery Advertiser reporter Melissa Brown at 334-240-0132 or [email protected].