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NIST and Natural Disasters

Introduction     1986     1994     2006     2011

Introduction 

Since 1969, NIST has studied earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, and fires — all with the aim of identifying improvements in models, codes, standards, practices, and technologies to enhance the health and safety of the American public.

NIST research structural engineer Matthew Speicher inspecting damage after the 2011 earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand. He is standing in front of a building which has structural damage making it lean to left.
NIST engineer Matthew Speicher inspecting earthquake damage in New Zealand 2011.
Credit: NIST

In 2002, passage of the National Construction Safety Team Act granted NIST the responsibility to dispatch teams of experts within 48 hours after major building disasters. These authorities are modeled after those of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) for investigating transportation accidents.

Travis Thonstad of the NIST Materials and Structural Systems Division measuring a high-water mark on a Houston, Texas residence after Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
NIST engineer  Travis Thonstad measuring a high-water mark in Texas after Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
Credit: NIST
David Goodwin (left)  and Siamak Sattar from NIST’s Materials and Structural Systems Division examining a wall at the Anchorage Water and Wastewater Treatment Plant after an earthquake in Alaska 2019.
NIST team members David Goodwin (left) and Siamak Satter examining vital infrastructure after an earthquake in Alaska in 2019.
Credit: NIST

NIST sends teams to assess building and infrastructure performance, and emergency response and evacuation procedures in the wake of a disaster that has resulted in substantial loss of life or posed significant potential of substantial loss of life.

NIST research structural engineer Joe Main on the roof of the Hospital Bella Vista in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico in 2017. Joe is photographing the surrounding terrain to document local topography and surface roughness.
NIST engineer Joseph Main documenting local topography in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria in 2017.
Credit: NIST

Graphic of equation from Don G. Friedman's 1975 report to calculate risk.

1986

The Fire at the Dupont Plaza Hotel and Casino

NIST's analysis of the 1986 fire at the DuPont Plaza Hotel and Casino in San Juan, Puerto Rico, one of the deadliest hotel fires in U.S. history in which ninety eight persons lost their lives, informed the passage of the Hotel and Motel Fire Safety Act of 1990, which requires hotel and motel rooms to be equipped with individual smoke detectors and automatic sprinkler fire suppression systems.

Page 60 from Harold E. Nelson, An Engineering Analysis of the Early Stages of Fire Development – The Fire at the Dupont Plaza Hotel and Casino – December 31, 1986 Gaithersburg, MD: National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), 1987, with hand drawn illustrations from the report showing the time-lapsed growth of the fire. 
Page 61 of Harold E. Nelson, An Engineering Analysis of the Early Stages of Fire Development – The Fire at the Dupont Plaza Hotel and Casino – December 31, 1986 Gaithersburg, MD: National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), 1987, with hand drawn illustrations from the report showing the time-lapsed growth of the fire.

Hand drawn illustrations from the NIST report showing the time-lapsed growth of the fire.


Graphic of equation from Don G. Friedman's 1975 report to calculate risk.

1994

Northridge Earthquake – Performance of Structures, Lifelines, and Fire Protection Systems

Photo taken after the Northridge earthquake highlighting the damage to buildings and infrastructure.
Damage from the 1994 Northridge, CA earthquake.
Credit: USGS, public domain

The results of NIST’s study of the 1994 Northridge, CA earthquake led to industry adoption of design guidelines for seismic rehabilitation of existing welded steel frame buildings.


Graphic of equation from Don G. Friedman's 1975 report to calculate risk.

2006

Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita

NIST’s analysis of the structural impacts of Gulf Coast Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 identified improvements to risk-based storm surge maps for use in flood-resistant design of structures.

Aerial of a flooded neighborhood with streets and homes totally submerged.
Flooding in New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina, 2005.
Credit: Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA, public domain

Graphic of equation from Don G. Friedman's 1975 report to calculate risk.

2011

Tornado in Joplin, Missouri

NIST social scientist Erica Kuligowski (left) interviews a tornado survivor in Joplin, Missouri in 2011.
NIST social scientist Erica Kuligowski (left) interviews a tornado survivor in Joplin, Missouri in 2011.
Credit: NIST

NIST's technical investigation of the 2011 Joplin, Missouri tornado was one of the first studies to include storm characteristics, building performance, emergency communication and human behavior - with an assessment of the impact of each on fatalities. This study led to new state-of-the-art tornado hazard maps, the improvement of public alerts, warnings, and application of social media to support emergency communications, and better design of buildings and shelters in tornado-prone regions.

 

Created July 8, 2020, Updated August 19, 2020