June 29, 2011
Tornado Innovation: Three Ways to Prevent the Devastation
by Garrick Infanger
Tornado destruction has been in news led by the devastating tornado in Joplin, Missouri, killing 146 in the deadliest tornado in 60 years. My parents have been Red Cross disaster volunteers for years now including two weeks in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. They just returned from a two-week tour in Joplin assisting with the post-tornado relief work. “TV and pictures do it no justice. The devastation is beyond words,” they kept saying.
What can technology and innovation do to prevent, or at least mitigate, the damage caused by these natural disasters? How can we balance the costs of prevention with the unlikely odds of tornadoes striking any particular home? Basements, safe rooms, and new composite materials are three effective methods for tornado preparation.
Basements: Only 13 percent of the homes in Joplin had a basement. Basements do not guarantee safety because a house can collapse and injure or trap occupants, but basements would have prevented the many deaths in Joplin from people being swept from their homes. According to Reuters, 42% of homes in 1992 had basements and only 30% in 2009. Reversing this trend in home building would greatly improve the chances of survival in future tornados.
Safe Rooms: Installing a concrete-reinforced closet or safe room can provide a temporary refuge during the storm. My parents met one grandmother that retreated to an interior closet with her two grandchildren and when they opened the door after the storm, the four walls of the closet were the only remnant of the house left standing. FEMA suggests safe rooms need to be adequately anchored, built to withstand intense winds and accumulating water, and walls must be built so that damage to the residence will not affect the safe room.
Composite Materials: Carbon fiber, typically used in bicycles or eyeglasses, is now being used to reinforce homes and shelters. Kevlar, metal mesh and carbon fibers provide flexibility that can move with the wind, but provide protection from flying debris. Concrete Cloth, one such product, can be installed by erecting a canvas tent and then applying water to activate a chemical reaction that hardens the shell. These shelters could not be erected in time during a tornado, but could be made available ahead of time in areas with mobile homes.
While it is never financially possible to make everyone perfectly safe, some degree of prevention can greatly increase the likelihood of residents surviving extreme weather.