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StEER Releases EARR on Tornado in Kansas

An EF4 tornado occurred in eastern Kansas on May 28, 2019 causing considerable damage in Linwood, Kansas, and surrounding areas. Damage mostly consisted of single-family residential structures, although one daycare facility south of Lawrence, Kansas, was destroyed. The tornado ultimately resulted in 18 injuries and no fatalities.

This report provides a preliminary summary of the damage and impacts of the tornado, and details on-site investigations conducted by researchers from the University of Kansas and the University of Missouri in Kansas City. The on-site investigations were funded by the Structural Extreme Events Reconnaissance (StEER) network. Founded under an NSF EAGER grant, StEER seeks to build societal resilience by generating new knowledge on the performance of the built environment through impactful post-disaster reconnaissance disseminated to affected communities.


On-site investigations were conducted in the impacted areas of Lawrence, Linwood, and Bonnor Springs, Kansas. Using a combination of door-to-door forensic engineering assessments and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), a Field Assessment Structural Team (FAST) directly investigated 271 buildings impacted by the tornado focusing on the structural systems, observed damage (or lack thereof), and context of the observed damage in relation to the building attributes, surrounding terrain, and proximity to the tornado path. These 271 structures are believed to be representative of buildings damaged by the tornado, but not all damaged structures were surveyed. Notably, one area south of Lawrence, Kansas, was not accessible to FAST members.


Preliminary observations from the FAST investigation include the following:

  1. There are no public shelters in the impacted areas for residents to safely shelter in during tornadoes. This is particularly alarming for Douglas County that hosts a large student population living in above-ground apartment buildings.

  2. Many damaged single-family wood-frame structures lacked a sufficient load path. This is representative of the current and outdated building codes and inspection protocols (or lack thereof) adopted in the impacted area.

  3. Considering the lack of public shelters and insufficient load paths for many residential buildings along the tornado paths, and assumed consistency in construction style throughout the impacted cities, the impacts of the tornado were only limited by its path not hitting dense areas in these cities and the lack of fatalities is extremely fortunate.

  4. Vulnerability of older manufactured homes continues to be a critical issue, driven in part by poor anchorage practices and weak assemblies as was observed in this study.

  5. Unreinforced masonry buildings also continue to be particularly vulnerable. The Building Blocks Day Care was completely destroyed; should the tornado have occurred during typical workday hours, this structural failure could have resulted in injury and death for many small children.

  6. Tree-fall in outer regions of the tornado path caused severe structural damage and vehicular damage, and heightened potential for loss of life, in buildings that otherwise would have likely performed adequately, similar to observations from the 2019 tornadoes in Alabama.

This FAST StEER team recommends additional research is performed on the best locations for public tornado shelters for the regions known to be susceptible to tornadoes, including Kansas. A recent New York Times article highlighted the tragic state of structurally dangerous schools in the U.S., including those in Tornado Alley1. This team recommends northeastern Kansas and the entire U.S. take a much closer look at strengthening the types of buildings utilized for housing groups of children (e.g., schools and day cares).


All observations and findings provided in this report should be considered preliminary and are based on the limited scope of FAST. Specific recommendations of areas worthy of further investigation are offered at the conclusion of this report.


Access the full report HERE.

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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. CMMI 1841667. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of StEER and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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