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Civil engineer says buildings will need to prepare for stronger storms

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

After a series of tornadoes tore through Kentucky and the Midwest this weekend, the confirmed death toll is inching closer to 100. And for some civil engineers, it's another grim reminder of the need for preparing homes, factories and other buildings for stronger storms. For more, we reached out to David Prevatt, professor of civil engineering at the University of Florida. He studies how to prepare buildings for tornadoes and hurricanes. He joins us now.

Welcome.

DAVID PREVATT: Thanks for inviting me.

CORNISH: We're going to get into your expertise in just a moment. But first, I want to start with some of the photos. There's been drone video of the damage this weekend - so many flattened homes. And I wonder, when you see these images, what goes through your mind?

PREVATT: Two things. It is shocking. It is a terrific thing to see, and actually, it's worse to see it in person. The second thing that goes through my mind is how much of this was preventable had we thought about doing something many, many decades ago.

CORNISH: What does a building - any building - need in order to have a chance at withstanding a tornado?

PREVATT: So I am here in University of Florida, and we have been dealing with hurricanes and hurricane damage to buildings since 1992, Hurricane Andrew. Essentially, the same things that are required for hurricane damage is required for tornado damage, and that is continuous and strong vertical load path that ties every component from the roof to the walls to the foundation and integrates that entire building together.

CORNISH: How common is that kind of design in development?

PREVATT: It is common in my state, in the state of Florida. It is less common in the structures that I have seen in tornado-devastated places since I've been looking at this.

CORNISH: Do people look at tornadoes differently than they do hurricanes in a way?

PREVATT: To some extent, yes. One of the problems with tornadoes is firstly, many people think that it is such a rare occurrence that there is nothing that they can do. And this is not true at all. The other thing that people think about tornadoes is because it's so rare, it's so extreme, that the losses from tornadoes compared to other hazards like hurricanes and earthquakes - it's rather small. The tornado losses that we have seen in aggregate over perhaps the last 20 or 30 years - it rivals the amount of damage that we will see in hurricanes in that same period.

CORNISH: I don't know if you are thinking or talking more aggressively about climate change, but is that in this conversation as well?

PREVATT: You know, it is in the conversation. I'd say it's above my pay grade.

CORNISH: OK (laughter).

PREVATT: Our communities, our societies take a long time to develop and to build. So all of these communities that have been hit this Friday - you know, the building construction plans have been going on for perhaps 50 years since the Lubbock tornado, for instance, in Lubbock, Texas. And we continue to build in the disaster of the future one building at a time by choosing not to build to tornado resilience standards. Regardless of what happens with climate change, the fact is I would not expect in our lifetimes to see any reduction in the number of tornadoes that we have every year - twelve hundred tornadoes every year that's expected in the United States.

CORNISH: Well, David, thank you so much for your time and expertise.

PREVATT: Thank you so much.

CORNISH: That's David Prevatt, professor of civil engineering at the University of Florida. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.
Ashish Valentine joined NPR as its second-ever Reflect America fellow and is now a production assistant at All Things Considered. As well as producing the daily show and sometimes reporting stories himself, his job is to help the network's coverage better represent the perspectives of marginalized communities.