Engineering Graduate Students Assess Hurricane and Tornado Damage

One team of student researchers stayed busy this tornado season. LSU graduate students Stuart Adams, civil engineering, Elizabeth Chisolm, engineering science, and Vipin Unnikrishnan, civil engineering, traveled to Mississippi and Alabama following the April 2011 tornadoes, in order to assess and classify tornado damage with the help of LSU’s new CAPTURE Lab technology.

The CAPTURE lab, pioneered Dr. Carol Friedland, assistant professor of Construction Management, addresses the need for a multi-hazard approach to understanding extreme weather. The lab applies new technologies, including high-definition video of damaged areas mapped to a physical location – imagine a video version of Google Maps Street View – remote-control aircraft assisted aerial imagery and emerging iPad/tablet applications to speed up damage assessment and improve damage models.

Adams, Chisolm and Unnikrishnan surveyed and collected data on damaged buildings in Tuscaloosa, Ala., Hackleburg, Ala., and in Smithville, Miss. The group used the collected data to rate the strength of the tornadoes based on the degree of damage to buildings and various structures.

“Collecting data for extreme events helps engineers to piece together how buildings perform in extreme weather conditions and helps us to determine construction and design solutions that can be enacted to prevent future damage and loss of life,” Chisolm said.

According to Friedland, the end goal of the CAPTURE lab is to improve the safety of the structures we live and work in. “We are interested in making better buildings,” she said.

Chisolm, a native of southwest Louisiana, became very interested in hazard resistant design and construction after witnessing the extreme damage in 2005 from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. “I feel that devoting time to finding ways to help people live and work in structures that are safer is the best thing I could do as an engineer for my state and other parts of the country,” Chisolm said.

“I think it’s hard to even comprehend what it is like for communities that are affected by hazards, such as tornadoes, unless you are there on the ground witnessing the damage first hand,” Chisolm said.

Although finding ways to prevent devastating weather damage may seem like a daunting task, Chisolm believes that this is what engineers are called to do, to “find solutions to the world’s toughest problems.”

Chisolm’s favorite part of her field research was learning the new techniques and technologies for collecting and analyzing damage data in real-time—from remote sensing, to aerial imaging and to geo-reference video. These techniques and technologies contribute to the shaping of better multi-hazard damage models.

Friedland also points out that these technologies are applicable to many general forms of engineering beyond weather hazards.

Aside from conducting research, Friedland and her students also work to raise community awareness about building safety and hurricane and tornado hazard-resistant construction. Adams demonstrates the use of a remote-controlled aircraft for damage data capture during visits to local elementary schools in Baton Rouge. Carol Massarra, a master’s student in Friedland’s group, also contributes to these outreach projects, teaching kids how to play iPad app bridge-building games and build model houses out of toothpicks, marshmallows and toothpaste that stand up to ‘hurricane wind’ forces.

“The ‘marshmallow’ building that stands up to the blowing air of a fan, wins,” Massarra said.

Massarra explained that her favorite part of research in Friedland’s group is the practical knowledge she gains from studying hurricane hazard and damage assessment in Louisiana. “You are always learning something new,” she said.

“I simply hope that in some way, through my research and my work, that I am able to help people live safer and happier lives despite whatever disaster may occur,” Chisolm said.


Article written by Paige Brown, communications graduate student worker. For more information, contact Cassie Arceneaux, College of Engineering, carcen6@lsu.edu or (225) 578-0092.