Nov 152005
Authors: Amanda Schank

A group of engineering professors and specialists joined forces late September in an effort to research and determine the effects of Hurricane Katrina on residential wood-frame structures, applying classroom taught theories to real-life situations.

The group, headed by CSU Professor John van de Lindt, concluded builders could have prevented a majority of the researched destruction with stricter building codes and greater attention to quality control.

"(This information) will definitely shed some light on a few things, but what we found isn't so uncommon for any hurricane," said van de Lindt, associate professor for the civil engineering department. "It's just a wake-up call for the Gulf Coast building community because they might realize if they pay a little bit more attention to details, and make sure they're following manufacturer recommendations, they will be less susceptible (to damage) in the future."

According to the National Climatic Data Center, Hurricane Katrina was one of the most destructive storms on record, causing damage across the Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama coastlines. The Category 4 storm first hit ground with winds up to 140 mph, creating a final death toll just under 1,000.

Funded by the National Science foundation and composed of three professors, two working engineers and one member who stayed at a home base to check on potential tornadoes, the research team conducted most of its studies along the Mississippi coastline.

A rented motor home transformed to a moving laboratory as each day, the group drove south toward the coastline, surveying damage along the way.

Van de Lindt said the team took a "grassroots approach" to its research techniques, asking local community members and police for directions to hurricane-mutilated areas.

While the media prepared the researchers for Katrina's apparent destruction, some claimed the sights still came as a shock.

"We arrived at the coast almost one month after Katrina hit," Andrew Graettinger, associate professor of the department of civil and environmental engineering of the University of Alabama, wrote in an e-mail interview. "I was surprised to see the amount of exposed damage and how slow clean up efforts were moving.

"We saw miles of homes, up to several blocks inland that were literally scrubbed off the Earth."

The group's primary study areas were concentrated a few miles inland, where the majority of structures suffered strong wind damage only. With attention to detail, the members accessed and compared a multitude of elements involved in conventional construction techniques, from the structure's siding down to individual nail placement.

As research continued, the team claimed it became clear builders and inspectors understood how a house should be constructed, but the amount of damage a house sustained depended on the amount of quality control and enforcement of building codes.

While results of the study are essential to future building codes and regulation, many of the professors agreed almost equally important was the opportunity to implement their skills as engineers to help others in real-life situations.

"It was a chance for me to see what works and what doesn't work, so I can incorporate some of the lessons learned from this visit into the classroom," Rakesh Gupta, associate professor in department of wood science and engineering at Oregon State University, wrote in an e-mail interview.

Some students also agreed the value of engineers' expertise in the world is not only of great importance, but many times underappreciated.

"I think it's good that people are listening to what an engineer has to say," said Nathaniel Jackson, junior civil engineering major. "Normally civil engineers' jobs go unnoticed when they actually have to do with everything that has to do with society from water to building structures."

Now the team will prepare the final report of the 27 case studies. Van de Lindt said he hopes it will cause building officials and inspectors in the South to pay attention and enforce its provisions more firmly.

"It is important for people to know that contractors and builders should not cut corners," Gupta wrote. "Just a few extra nails could make or break a building in an extreme event like Hurricane Katrina."

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