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NIST Reports Stricter Adherence to Standards and Codes, Recognition of Storm Surge as Keys to Minimizing Structural Damage from Hurricanes

Performance of Physical Structures in Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita: A Reconnaissance Report (NIST Technical Note 1476) (7 mb .pdf file, requires Acrobat Reader)

Q&As on the NIST Reconnaissance and Assessment of Damage from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita

Overview of NIST Katrina-Rita Reconnaissance (.pdf; requires Acrobat Reader)

GAITHERSBURG, Md.—Stricter adherence to existing building standards, model building codes and good building practices, and a greater recognition of the risks posed by storm surge, could minimize the kind of structural damage experienced in the Gulf Coast states hit by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita last year, the Commerce Department's National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) announced today.

A report issued today by NIST documents the findings of a multi-organizational team—coordinated by NIST and made up of experts from private-sector, academic and federal entities—that deployed three subteams of technical experts in October 2005 to areas impacted by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita to conduct a broad-based reconnaissance on the performance of a variety of physical structures during the storms. 

The reconnaissance was intended to identify new technical issues that need to be addressed in the rebuilding effort, in the improvement of building standards and model codes, and in future research studies—and to build upon knowledge gained from previous post-hurricane damage assessments. 

The report makes 23 recommendations for specific improvements in the way that buildings, physical infrastructure (such as bridges and utilities) and residential structures are designed, constructed, maintained and operated in hurricane-prone regions across the United States—not just in the states affected by Katrina and Rita.

Federal agencies, state and local governments, and the private sector already have taken many actions consistent with NIST's recommendations to facilitate rebuilding and mitigate the potential for damage from future storms—in many cases even as the findings were being analyzed and recommendations were being formulated.

The NIST report urges state and local agencies to adopt and enforce building standards and model codes regarding hurricanes—and to make relatively straightforward changes in building practices. For example:

Many roofing failures resulted from an inadequate number of fasteners being used in installation or fasteners being incorrectly located. NIST recommends that state and localities consider licensing of roofing contractors, continuing education of contractors and field inspection programs to monitor roofs under construction.

Wind-borne gravel from building rooftops caused a great deal of damage to nearby structures. Model building codes do not permit this type of roofing in high-wind zones.

Several buildings were rendered inoperable because critical equipment, such as electrical systems and backup electrical generators, were located at or below grade and damaged by floodwaters. Adoption and enforcement of existing model code provisions that require a building's critical equipment to be placed above potential flood levels could keep many buildings functioning following a hurricane or return them to normal use more quickly.

Masonry wall failures observed during the reconnaissance may have been prevented had the walls been properly anchored and reinforced as required by model codes.

Several federal agencies already are acting on another area of improvement identified in the report: reviewing and updating flood hazard maps to better reflect the hazard due to storm surge, current velocity and wave action in the design of coastal structures—especially for the affected Gulf Coast regions. Also being reviewed is the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale's treatment of storm surge effects. The scale provides an expected storm-surge height associated with the intensity as determined by sustained wind speed. In the case of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the reconnaissance team found that storm surge heights at several locations exceeded those associated with a wind-speed based hurricane category. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) bases its hurricane advisories on the results of detailed storm surge simulation models that account for the local topography and bathymetry (depth from the sea surface to the seafloor), as well as hurricane parameters such as size and track.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) is taking a variety of major steps to improve the flood protection system in New Orleans, consistent with the NIST report's recommendations and beyond repairing damage to the New Orleans flood protection system caused by Hurricane Katrina. The USACE Interagency Performance Evaluation Task Force (IPET) is conducting a detailed evaluation of the performance of the flood protection system to provide credible scientific and engineering information for guiding the immediate repair and future upgrade of the system. A draft IPET report was released on June 1, 2006.

Additional recommendations in the NIST report cover the performance during hurricanes of bridges and parking garages; buildings (including pre-engineered metal buildings, moored casino barges, portable classrooms and manufactured homes); residential and building roofing systems; building envelopes such as window systems and exterior cladding (to prevent damage from wind, wind-borne debris and water-ingress); utility (electric, water and gas) systems; and seaports (wharves and large cargo cranes).

The NIST report's recommendations make clear what actions can be taken immediately to lessen or prevent hurricane damage to structures, and defines those actions that will require longer-term, greater effort. NIST believes that all of its recommendations are realistic, appropriate and achievable within a reasonable period of time.

The NIST report, Performance of Physical Structures in Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita: A Reconnaissance Report (NIST Technical Note 1476), is available online at NIST is working with the states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas in conjunction with FEMA to set up briefings on its report and recommendations with state and local officials in June 2006. NIST also intends to follow up with standards and codes organizations on specific recommendations that impact them.

As a non-regulatory agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce's Technology Administration, NIST promotes U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness by advancing measurement science, standards and technology in ways that enhance economic security and improve our quality of life.


The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)Reconnaissance and Assessment of Damage
from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) reconnaissance on the performance of physical structures following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita complements other post-Katrina studies—completed and ongoing—by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), the Multidisciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research (MCEER) with support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). Although the agencies have differing missions, there has been a great deal of collaboration and open sharing of information among them.

NIST's reconnaissance was the one federal study that addressed damage from both hurricanes and the broad scope of issues for major buildings, physical infrastructure (levees, bridges, water and wastewater systems, power, communications and industrial facilities) and residential structures. Additionally, many of NIST's recommendations are applicable to hurricane prone regions of the country outside the areas directly affected by the two hurricanes.

While the findings from the reconnaissance and the recommendations based on them are NIST's, the report and recommendations have been reviewed by the participating organizations.

NIST began coordinating its efforts with other federal agencies on Aug. 29, 2005, the day of Hurricane Katrina's landfall along the Louisiana-Mississippi border.

Four staff from NIST deployed in cooperation with FEMA's Mitigation Assessment Team (MAT) to observe damage to buildings and residential areas in coastal Mississippi during the week of Sept. 26, 2005.

NIST staff also coordinated visits to document breaches in the levees and floodwalls with USACE staff. Two USACE staff served on NIST reconnaissance teams in Louisiana and Mississippi. One NIST staff member is currently participating on the IPET study of the New Orleans flood protection system. 

Two staff from the FHWA served on NIST reconnaissance teams in Louisiana and Texas. In addition, NSF researchers affiliated with MCEER participated in the NIST-led reconnaissance team.

The 16 organizations that participated in the NIST-coordinated damage assessment team are NIST, the Applied Technology Council, USACE, FHWA, the International Code Council, the National Council of Structural Engineers Associations, the National Research Council of Canada, Texas Tech University, the University at Buffalo, the University of Puerto Rico, Amtech Roofing Consultants Inc., Applied Residential Engineering Services, ImageCat Inc., Scawthorn Porter Associates Inc., Shiner Moseley and Associates Inc., and Smith & Huston Inc. 

Released June 9, 2006, Updated January 20, 2023