In-Depth: How technology is helping save lives during a tornado

Tornado damage in Jarrell. Twenty-seven people died when the twister landed on May 27, 1997. (Photo: KXAN)

AUSTIN (KXAN) —  It was a living nightmare—the worst possible tornado, an F5—killing more than two dozen men, women and children in Jarrell, Texas on May 27, 1997. The town is near Austin.

Next year will be the 20th anniversary of the worst tornado disaster in Austin history. Many sad retrospectives will follow, but ahead of this 19th anniversary, there is a positive story to tell about how that storm changed our understanding of tornado survival. Though that change did not actually begin in Jarrell. It started 27 years earlier, in Lubbock, Texas. The city is 314 miles from Fort Worth.

At a pancake house in Lubbock, witnesses who lived through the deadly storm remember the horror of that night. The stories are told over a counter-top that is the only remaining fixture from the original cafe. It was blown away, along with 1,000 other homes and businesses, 10,000 cars and trucks and 26 lives.

Witnesses described several tornadoes around the city on the evening of May 11, 1970. The biggest twister dropped out of the sky around 9:45 p.m. near the Texas Tech campus. The monster tornado tracked northeast—an unfortunate path of destruction up to two miles wide, through the heart of the city. Winds greater than 260 mph were powerful enough to twist a high-rise downtown building—which is still slightly off kilter—evidence of the repair is visible today. It was a tornado so rare, an F-5, there had only been one other in Texas since the state’s worst tornado killed 114 people in Waco, on the same day in May, 17 years earlier.

When the tornado struck Lubbock, coincidentally, two new Texas Tech engineering professors were looking for a research project. Professor Larry Tanner says, “the research project fell out of the sky.” As the educators studied the devastation, they quickly realized there was a need to understand how the damage, injuries and deaths were caused. But, Tanner says learning how tornadoes cause damage was only half the equation; they needed to find out how buildings can be built to resist flying debris.

“How are we going to resist all this debris that impales all our structures? So, that’s how the Debris Impact Facility was birthed,” explains Tanner, who now manages the Texas Tech Debris Impact Facility, the world’s leading wind damage research program. Originally known as the Wind Science and Engineering Research Center, it has evolved into the study of all things wind, and is now the National Wind Institute.

And the best way to study debris impact was through the development of a pneumatic cannon, which fires projectiles at speeds found in EF-5 tornadoes. Professor Tanner operates the cannon, which he affectionately calls “a potato gun on steroids.” He describes its operation: “We have a sophisticated butterfly tank valve that instantly opens and dumps all the tank air into our barrel. Then, we calibrate our speed and our cannon using high speed photography.”

As he arms the cannon, sounds a buzzer three times and presses the red ‘fire’ button, he describes what we see happen in a split second: a long 2-by-4 plank splintering as it smashes into an unyielding block of concrete. “It’s a very lethal 15 pound wooden projectile…if that had been your house wall, even with a brick veneer on it, it’d gone through that wall. It would have gone probably through that wall across the room from it, and maybe another wall. So it’s quite lethal,” says Tanner.

The testing pioneered the development of above ground shelters, as researchers learned what materials could hold up under the onslaught of flying debris. Tanner says the above ground shelter concept came directly from the very early research, first published in 1974. “The idea was to design shelters using common building materials—brick, masonry, reinforced concrete, even wood and sheet steel.”

After that terrible day in 1970, the research continued and expanded, but then came Jarrell. Some experts say it was the most incredible tornado damage ever inflicted. Almost every home in the Double Creek Estates neighborhood was swept clean from its foundation. Even plumbing was ripped from the bare concrete slabs. Cars and trucks were ground into to small pieces, and many never found. Trees were debarked and 500 feet of asphalt was scoured from the road. And in minutes, 27 lives were lost, one more than in Lubbock.

The destruction inflicted by the Jarrell tornado was almost incomprehensible, and it focused the national media’s attention on the tornado damage study being done at Texas Tech University. Professor Tanner credits that attention with reinvigorating the research and says they’ve been “saving lives ever since.”

Safe Rooms

In 2015, Texas recorded 244 tornadoes—the highest number of twisters to ever touch down since record keeping began in 1950. Seventeen lives were lost. Some of those lives might have been saved if their home had been outfitted with safe rooms.

Conventional wisdom has been, in a tornado like Jarrell or Lubbock, you can only survive underground. Not so, says Tanner. “We have awakened the public that the only safe place is not only below ground. They’ve been told for years and years, ‘this is an EF-5—if you can’t get below ground you can’t be safe,’ and that’s just not true.”

But could a safe room survive even in a maximum intensity tornado like Jarrell?

Adam Richter unloading a storm shelter in Jarrell. (KXAN Photo/Tom Rapp)
Adam Richter unloading a storm shelter in Jarrell. (KXAN Photo/Tom Rapp)

“Absolutely, without question. Without question. I’ve spent many years looking at shelters in danger zones, and I’ve not seen a failed shelter, above or below ground.” Tanner says places people think are safe like ditches, cellars or basements can be even more dangerous than an above ground shelter. “I could show you hundreds of photos of ditches full of propane tanks, cars, all kinds of debris impaling the ground—dead cows, you name it—how safe was that ditch? Not very. I’ve seen cellars with doors blown off, with debris down inside that cellar. How safe was that cellar? Not very. I’ve seen basements full of debris.”

But, Tanner is emphatic about one thing: the only safe shelter is a tested, certified shelter. And he says his laboratory has probably tested 90 percent of all shelter products in America.

Back in Jarrell, Adam Richter installs certified above and below ground shelters, and he is a believer. “It’ll protect you from any tornado—it’s up to F5 in the testing—it’s proven to save people,” says Richter. His family founded the Jarrell Storm Shelter company after the deadly tornado.

After decades of research, the evidence is clear—tested, certified shelters, above or below ground are as good as it gets. But, the work at the test facility continues as the debris impact cannon is always in demand to test new shelter materials and construction. And the research continues to expand. One of the newest tools, a tornado vortex simulator, can create up to EF-3 tornadoes to better understand how tornadoes interact with and damage structures. Wind tunnels, doppler radars on wheels and mobile weather stations and more are now all a part of the National Wind Institute in an effort to study how wind impacts human life.

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