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Fred Haan, Ph.D., is Working to Reduce the Damage and Death Toll from Future Tornadoes and Windstorms

November 5, 2015

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On scene: Dr. Fred Haan, associate professor of mechanical engineering, examines a tornado shelter amid the wreckage caused by an EF5 tornado that struck Moore, Oklahoma in 2013. Haan was part of the National Science Foundation’s Rapid Response Damage Assessment Team in Moore.

A Rose-Hulman professor has been selected to help build a cyber network that will improve and expand the nation’s understanding of tornadoes, windstorms, earthquakes, and floods.

Fred Haan, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, and a tornado and windstorm expert, was approached by the University of Texas at Austin to help develop the cyber infrastructure for a wide-ranging network of natural disaster researchers working at facilities around the country.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is providing $13.7 million to build the cyber infrastructure. It will include a software platform, data repository, and other tools to help experts share information and resources with the goal of designing more storm-and earthquake-resistant schools, hospitals, tunnels, dams, and other public facilities. Haan’s job is to ensure that the infrastructure is useful for wind studies experts.

The project is part of a $40-million NSF effort to strengthen the nation’s public facilities against natural disasters. That effort, known as the Natural Hazards Engineering Research Infrastructure (NHERI), establishes seven experimental facilities at universities around the country to test engineering designs and materials against powerful storms and quakes. The seven facilities will be linked together through a resource-sharing Web platform at UT Austin that will host computer models and simulations of natural hazards that can be validated against real-world events.

In the aftermath of deadly tornadoes, such as the one that killed more than 160 people in Joplin, Missouri in 2011, “people are starting to ask what we can do to lessen the damage and death toll,” Haan says. “More people now see this as something worth doing.”

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Making connections: Fred Haan, associate professor of mechanical engineering, is helping the National Science Foundation improve cooperation and information sharing among natural disaster researchers around the nation.

Haan has been studying the effects of windstorms for two decades. A Rose-Hulman professor since 2008, he established a tornado simulation chamber at Iowa State University and was part of the NSF’s rapid response damage assessment team in Moore, Oklahoma after an EF5 tornado that claimed 25 lives. A category EF5 tornado has sustained winds of more than 200 mph.

The NHERI will help engineers discover the best ways to construct homes, businesses, and other civil infrastructure to withstand tornadoes, Haan says. His research has already revealed that buildings require stronger supports against the powerful upward suction created by a tornado. While some damage from tornadoes is linked to sideways winds, much destruction also results from an upward suction that virtually lifts buildings off their foundations. Inexpensive improvements designed to secure roofs and better hold houses on their foundations would greatly reduce the damage from many storms, he says.

While little can be done to protect against monster storms, such as those striking Joplin and Moore, 90 percent of tornadoes are much weaker, with wind speeds of 135 mph or less, Haan notes. That means even small construction improvements can have big payoffs. “We tell people, the connections holding a house or roof down are everything,” he says. “Spending a few thousand dollars more during construction could triple the strength of a house.”