Innovation keeping people safe during tornadoes

To many he’s the Father of the Safe Room. To his friends, he is simply Ernie. And Ernie is a pretty unassuming guy. Humble is probably the best word for it.

Beginnings

On the evening of May 11, 1970, an off-duty police officer sat in his car watching an ominous cloud creep towards Lubbock, Texas. Watching grapefruit-size hail punching dents on his car, he knew the city was in for a tough night.

A monster tornado touched down near Texas Tech University snapping Red Raider stadium light poles like matchsticks. The one-and-a-half-mile wide F5 tornado churned through Lubbock that evening, damaging and destroying thousands of homes and businesses.

But the real tragedy was the 26 individuals who died and the 1,500 injured residents.

The new chairman of the Civil Engineering Department at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Dr. Ernst Kiesling, was familiar with the terrible power of a tornado. Seventeen years prior, an F4 ripped through his hometown of San Angelo, Texas, killing 13.

The recurring human loss from these killer storms triggered something inside Kiesling. He started talking to his young faculty team about opportunities to use their academic and research skills to make a difference. The team started to collect data and document tornado damage through site visits to stricken areas.

The Real Work Begins

By the time 1973 rolled around, Kiesling’s team was firing on all cylinders, and the engine of their creativity sparked an idea destined to save countless lives. While studying tornado damage in the small town of Burnet, Texas, the engineers noticed a recurring theme.

A severely damaged house had no roof nor exterior walls. In fact, the only thing left standing was a small kitchen pantry in the center of the debris. All four walls were intact.

“The inspiration for the above-ground storm shelter came from that pantry,” Kiesling reminisced. “The sensible approach was to provide occupant protection for a small area, and design the rest of the home to sustain minimum economic loss.”

And so Kiesling’s team descended the stairs to the lab and went to work. One major issue was making the safe room stand up to flying debris, one of the greatest dangers.

“We had to test the rooms we were building, but had no way to launch the debris missiles,” said Kiesling.

Behold, the pneumatic cannon, capable of launching a 15 foot 2X4 board at simulated wind speeds of more than 250 miles-per-hour. It was every young boy’s dream. Even today Kiesling gets a sparkle in his eye talking about how the cannon they developed played an important role in testing wall materials in those early days.

“We started by launching 2x4s at plywood,” said Kiesling. “A single layer — two layers — three layers were perforated by the tremendous force of the 2×4. Finally at four layers of plywood, it held.”

Kiesling and his team moved on to testing other wall material, including plywood layers mixed with steel reinforcement, and then concrete reinforced blocks. The team developed and tested prototype shelters, then the concept was fully accepted by all.

Well, maybe not “fully” accepted.

The Road to Acceptance

In 1974 Civil Engineering Magazine presented the concept of the above-ground storm shelter by Kiesling and graduate student David Goolsby. People questioned the concept. Many believed the only safe place during a tornado was underground, and the above-ground shelter was a waste of time and energy.

In addition, the badly needed shelter was often slowed by lack of research personnel or necessary funding.

That changed in 1998 when Dateline NBC came to Tulsa Tech.

A tornado destroyed a small, Texas subdivision and received national attention. Dateline aired a special program covering the devastation and featured the revolutionary above-ground storm shelter developed at Texas Tech.

Two years later, the shelter survived the F5 tornado in the Oklahoma City area. Other media outlets started taking notice and spreading the word about alternatives to going underground.Kiesling is proud of his storm shelter and keeps photos of some that stood alone in the middle of rubble after a storm. “Through our work, we have provided ample evidence that you can provide safety above ground as well as below ground,” he said.

In 1974 Kiesling and his family built a home in Lubbock. Putting his money where his mouth is, he installed a safe room made from concrete reinforced blocks. The room looked like a natural part of the home, and he often gave tours to city officials, media and neighbors.

“Our safe room opened some eyes,” he said. “We never had to use it, but one of the great benefits is the knowledge that there is a safe place within your home you can depend on.”

The Father of the Safe Room

And so Ernie continues to be an unassuming, humble man. Despite the fact that he has saved countless lives through his work, he prefers to shift the attention to others.

“My career has been very gratifying,” he said. “I could not foresee the opportunities that presented themselves to help others through our research.”

Dr. Ernst Kiesling is a retired professor of civil engineering at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. He is executive director of the National Storm Shelter Association (NSSA). He now serves as research Professor and leads the storm shelter research effort within the National Wind Institute at Texas Tech. Kiesling speaks regularly at conferences across the nation about the Texas Tech and NSSA research. State Farm is a sponsor of the National Tornado Summit in Oklahoma City, Okla., where Kiesling presented updates on the continuing university research and testing.

Photo credits: Liz Inskip-Paulk, TTU-NWI110816header