Tornados, Predictions, Destruction, STEMs

I drove through the area of destruction from last Sunday’s EF-5 tornado that wiped out a section of Joplin, Missouri. I couldn’t comprehend why so many perished when most of the homes in the area have basements. I thought that having a basement promised you an automatic storm shelter, protection from the fury that a tornado can bring. Oklahoma City had an EF-5 tornado take out much of two metro cities in 1999. Less than fifty people lost their lives. Here I am in Joplin and the toll is around one hundred thirty and expected to climb as there are more bodies awaiting identification.

St. John's Hospital, Joplin, MO

Tornados are complex phenomenon. In addition to the over 200 mile per hour winds they produce, there is a suctioning power developed in the core of the tornado that leaves most structures and humans powerless. The movie ‘The Wizard of Oz’ comes to most peoples’ minds when tornados strike. As Dorothy imagines seeing houses, cows, and the nasty neighbor on the bicycle fly around her, in reality, the tornado can throw cars as if they are toys, rip the bark off trees, send unrestrained structures into the air, only to land in pieces yards and miles away.

The homes in Joplin have basements. They also have wooden subfloors that serve as the ceiling for the basement. Huddled into the below ground level of their house, when the full impact of the tornado hit, the floor was taken out, leaving the victims with no shelter from the vacuum created by the tornado, nor from the pile of debris that was thrown into their sanctuary once the tornado was through with it.

As STEMs we take on the responsibility of designing to ensure not only production is maximized, but to ensure the safety of both life and property. After the Bhopal, India, incident in which Union Carbide equipment and instruments failed and caused loss of life and destruction in 1984, chemical and refinery manufacturers established new standards for design.

Every new or renovated installation required a Hazardous Operations, or HAZOP, study. This is a ‘what if’ to identify what are the worst outcomes of upsets that could occur in the system. What if the temperature probe failed? What if the pump stopped running? What is the likelihood that this will occur? What is the consequence if it occurs? What is the damage that will result in terms of dollars, lost property and loss of life?

These studies, for even the most minor of changes, are painstakingly long and involve brainstorming with engineers, operations and maintenance folks to uncover even the remotest of possibilities. The benefits are high in completing these exercises for the plant workers and neighboring communities.

Tornados? The meteorologists are making great strides in understanding these creatures and some new building techniques have been implemented, for those that can afford it, to be able to withstand the fury and protect inhabitants. There is an emphasis on prediction and early warning so that people may prepare.

Unfortunately, the destructive path the tornados take is still undetermined and only results in a few minutes’ warning as we wait for the formation of the funnels. Underground shelters with concrete roofs are no doubt the safest havens during a tornado. Unfortunately, there are few concrete shelters available for the masses of people needing protection. The cost of providing your own shelter is out of reach for many people.

We have a long way to go.

Thursday’s post will contain a look at the destruction and impact of Oklahoma City metro tornado of May 3, 1999 compared to the Joplin tornado of May 22, 2011.

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About stemzandroses

I'm an engineer and writer with a built-in need to share my nearly 40 years of experience working in a male-dominated field with the rest of the world.
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