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New Building Codes Aim To Protect U.S. From Devastating Tornadoes

Dec 10, 2015 04:20 PM EST
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Following the deadly tornado that tore through the city of Joplin, Mo., in 2011, researchers have developed new building codes for schools and other structures that house large groups of people during severe storms. These changes were based on recommendations from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and were recently approved by the International Coded Council (ICC). Going forward, these new codes will apply to tornado-prone regions in the U.S.

The updated codes address large facilities such as school campuses, gymnasiums, theaters and community centers, and require that each building has a storm shelter able to hold all occupants and protect them from storms with wind speeds up to 250 miles per hour, according to a news release. This standard is based on the maximum intensity of a category five tornado (EF-5), which is measured using the Enhanced Fujita Scale(Scroll to read more...)

Tornadoes are basically violently-rotating columns of air extending from a thunder storm to the ground. Because these funnel-shaped clouds quickly move across the ground, they are known displace even the largest of structurally-sound buildings. In 2011, the Joplin tornado (EF-5) traveled roughly 22.1 miles and lasted approximately 38 minutes from start to finish, in which time it destroyed 7,000 homes.

Based on the Joplin study, the NIST created 16 recommendations for improving how buildings and shelters are designed, constructed and maintained in tornado-prone areas, as well as how to improve emergency communication systems used to warn people of impending tornadoes. 

"Solid progress is being made working with code developers, state and local officials, U.S. agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA] and others toward realizing all of the proposed improvements for tornado protection and resilience in our study,"  Marc Levitan, leader of the NIST team that conducted the Joplin investigation, said in a statement.

Currently, Levitan says, efforts are being made to update tornado hazard maps for the U.S.; improve the Fujita scale based on advanced techniques for wind speed estimation; identify the best locations for disaster shelters and determine the best tornado refuge areas within existing buildings. Researchers hope that enhanced protection will save lives and reduce costs of property damage caused by tornadoes.

The updated storm shelter requirements will be published in ICC's 2018 International Building Code (IBC), as well as in the 2018 International Existing Building Code (IEBC). The "tornado-prone region" stretches from northern Texas to central Minnesota and from western Oklahoma to western Pennsylvania. Additionally, it includes "Tornado Alley" and "Dixie Alley" -- regions in the midwestern and southern U.S. that are notorious for tornadoes.

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