My wife and I lived in a small apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. That morning we saw a seemingly endless caravan of fire engines rushing downtown as the news flashed the first images of planes hitting the World Trade Center. We spent the day huddled without power, and breathed in dust from the fallen towers as it blew in through our windows.
The same career that had taken me to Manhattan carried me south late last year to UAB. I arrived about six months after the April 27, 2011, tornadoes that took so many lives in Alabama, and we often felt echoes of the storms' aftermath. Our son played his first Alabama baseball in Cahaba Heights near neighborhoods that had been stripped of trees, and where many homes had been recently repaired.
On March 2 this year, we sat up at 3:30 a.m. listening to the storm sirens echo across Vestavia Hills, me getting pings on my phone from UAB’s B-ALERT system. I remember feeling that same nervous dread I felt on 9/11.
My family’s current plan is to huddle in an internal closet should a tornado hit, with our options improving if we have more notice. We would have the kids put on their baseball helmets, but of course getting them into a storm shelter would be the best thing.
For that reason, I was fascinated to learn about the work of Uday Vaidya, Ph.D., professor within the UAB Department of Materials Science & Engineering, who is designing a new high-tech tornado shelter. The panels making up the shelter just passed the tornado threat test from the National Storm Shelter Association (NSSA).
In a feat of materials science, Vaidya and his team used thermoplastic and fiberglass resins, foams and fibers to make panels that are stronger in some ways than the steel in many current shelters. Some of the same materials are used in the latest armored vehicles, and in the UAB team's case they're recycled from discarded oil rig pipe insulation that would otherwise be piling up in landfills.
In the NSSA test, 15-pound two-by-fours fired from a pressure cannon were unable to penetrate the panels in a dozen attempts. The wooden missiles hit the panels at 100 mph, the speed at which projectiles typically exit a tornado funnel spinning at more than 200 mph. Such a storm would rate EF5 on the Enhanced Fujita scale and be capable of leveling well-built homes. Take a look at our recent article and the included video for details.
The successful NSSA test represents a first step toward commercial availability, which the team hopes to achieve by the 2013 tornado season. They started the effort after Hurricane Katrina, and have been working even more urgently since last year's tornadoes. The NSSA test was on Aug.1, and the team just filed its patent applications on Aug. 24.
For more information on tornadoes, please see the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration site or its storm prediction center. To follow the design project, look up the UAB spin-off company led by Vaidya: Innovative Composite Solutions.