UA Key in Multi-Institute Exploratory Research Project Investigating Tuscaloosa Tornado Damage

  • May 12th, 2011
UA civil engineers work with the multi-institute research team reviewing the tornado path.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala.–Tragically, the April 27 tornadoes caused loss of life and widespread damage in several states, especially in Alabama. In the wake of this disaster, engineers throughout the country are beginning to analyze building structures and codes in order to design safer and stronger buildings for the future.

A research team, consisting of academic researchers, code developers and professional engineers, has received a National Science Foundation Rapid Response Grant for Exploratory Research to investigate and gather data about the damage to, and performance of, woodframe structures in the affected areas due to strong winds.

The group received the grant because of The University of Alabama’s location to the proximity of the affected areas. The National Science Foundation recognized the urgency with the grant request because this type of data is perishable in that once debris removal begins there is no way to analyze the performance of the wood structures, said Dr. John W. van de Lindt, professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering at UA. The grant is being provided to The University of Florida to work in close collaboration with UA and other researchers.

The research goal is to better understand the forces generated by large tornadoes and the spatial distribution of Enhanced Fujita Scale rating across the city, as well as make recommendations for design code improvements and general safety guidelines.

One of the many woodframe structures the UA researches inspected.

The research team inspected the 5.9-mile affected tornado path in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on May 2-5 to analyze woodframe structures that were not damaged by trees. The team was provided clearance from FEMA’s Engineering Division and inspected 150 structures, including single family homes (one- and two-story) and apartment complexes. Collecting more than 3,000 photos, the team determined the EF-Scale rating in relation to damage for each of the 150 structures, with values ranging from EF0 to EF5, depending on the location within Tuscaloosa.

“Through this multi-university and industry collaboration, we can provide valuable research to help design safer homes,” said van de Lindt. “Preliminarily, we noticed that structures with less than 1,000 square feet do not have enough wall lines to provide an adequate safe space as compared to structures with more square footage.”

“There is no magic bullet here. An EF4 or EF5 level wind will still level even the best-constructed homes in its path,” said Dr. David O. Prevatt, assistant professor of civil and coastal engineering at the University of Florida. “The challenge facing us is to somehow improve performance of our existing homes so that more of them can survive the less intense EF0 to EF2 tornado and by so doing better protect its occupants.”

The team consists of the following researchers:

  • Dr. David O. Prevatt, principal investigator of the project, assistant professor of civil and coastal engineering, The University of Florida
  • Dr. John W. van de Lindt, professor and Garry Neil Drummond Endowed Chair in Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering, The University of Alabama
  • Dr. Andrew Graettinger, associate professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering, The University of Alabama
  • Dr David Grau, assistant professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering, The University of Alabama
  • William L. Colbourne, director of wind and flood hazard mitigation, Applied Technology Council
  • Dr. Rakesh Gupta, professor of wood science and engineering, Oregon State University
  • Dr. Shiling Pei, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, South Dakota State University
  • Samuel Hensen, branch engineering and technical manager, Simpson Strong-Tie Co.

The team will continue working with the National Science Foundation grant and the International Residential Code to begin the process of making changes to ensure load paths are enhanced to better protect the life safety of the occupants. The research team will also be available for the city of Tuscaloosa and surrounding areas as the rebuilding process begins.

In 1837, The University of Alabama became one of the first five universities in the nation to offer engineering classes. Today, UA’s fully accredited College of Engineering has nearly 3,100 students and more than 100 faculty. In the last eight years, students in the College have been named USA Today All-USA College Academic Team members, Goldwater scholars, Hollings scholars and Portz scholars.


Dr. John W. van de Lindt, UA professor of civil engineering, 205/348-2209 or


Mary Wymer, engineering public relations, 205/348-6444 or

The University of Alabama, part of The University of Alabama System, is the state’s flagship university. UA shapes a better world through its teaching, research and service. With a global reputation for excellence, UA provides an inclusive, forward-thinking environment and nearly 200 degree programs on a beautiful, student-centered campus. A leader in cutting-edge research, UA advances discovery, creative inquiry and knowledge through more than 30 research centers. As the state’s largest higher education institution, UA drives economic growth in Alabama and beyond.