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NIST report on Joplin, MO, tornado in May 2011 calls for major changes

A year-and-a-half after a tornado devastated Joplin, MO, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has released a 492-page report of its comprehensive investigation of the weather-related disaster, in which it presented no less than 47 separate “findings” and 16 separate “recommendations” for the future.

Its No. 1 finding noted that Joplin residents were woefully unprepared for such a storm. “NIST found that Joplin residents had limited access to underground or tornado–resistant shelters,” said the finding. “There were no community shelters or safe rooms in the City of Joplin or Jasper County at the time of the May 22, 2011, Joplin tornado.”

The first recommendation, among a total of 16, took note of the fact that insufficient technology exists to measure and predict such high-powered storms. “NIST recommends that a capacity be developed and deployed that can measure and characterize actual near–surface tornadic wind fields for use in the engineering design of buildings and infrastructure,” wrote the NIST experts.

The May 22, 2011, Joplin tornado, rated EF–5 on the Enhanced Fujita tornado intensity scale, caused 161 fatalities and more than 1,000 injuries, making it the deadliest single tornado on record in the U.S. since official records were begun in 1950, the report noted. 

The damage to the built environment made this the costliest tornado on record as well, with losses approaching $3 billion. The Joplin tornado damaged 553 business structures and nearly 7,500 residential structures; over 3,000 of those residences were heavily damaged or completely destroyed. 

NIST sent four engineers to Joplin from May 25-28, 2011 to conduct a preliminary reconnaissance of building performance and emergency communications during the tornado. Based on the analysis of the data collected and other criteria required by regulation, NIST Director Pat Gallagher established a research team to proceed with a more comprehensive study of the impacts of the disaster. 

Based on its findings, the NIST technical study team developed 16 recommendations for improving how buildings and shelters are designed, constructed, and maintained in tornado-prone regions and for improving emergency communications. 

Specifically, the NIST report calls for: 

( 1 )   Developing national performance-based standards for tornado-resistant design of buildings and infrastructure, as well as design methods to achieve those standards, and require that critical facilities such as hospitals, be designed to remain operational in the event of a tornado;

( 2 )   Installing tornado shelters in new and existing multi-family residential, commercial, and other larger buildings (hospitals, schools, large retail stores, and other commercial spaces that accommodate 200 to 300 people at a time) and as part of this effort, develop and implement uniform national guidelines to help communities site, design, install, and operate those shelters; and,

( 3 )   Create national codes and standards for clear, consistent and accurate emergency communications and then ensure that emergency managers, the National Weather Service, and the news media in local communities have a joint plan for delivering those messages quickly and persuasively during tornados. 

A copy of the complete NIST report is available here.


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