FEMA asks Texas Tech engineers to survey tornado damage

Lubbock knows the dangers of severe weather all too well; 26 people died and 1,500 more were injured in the 1970 tornado.

That storm led to ground-breaking research out of Texas Tech and changed the way we classify tornadoes.

In 1970 about 150,000 people lived in Lubbock. Tuscaloosa, Alabama's population is less than 100,000. Authorities report at least 10 more people killed there than in Lubbock back in 1970.

FEMA has asked Tech for help surveying the damage in the southeast. Professors tell us the death toll there seems high. They wonder if the building construction had something to do with the death toll.

"To have 36 in one town in one tornado, to me that's high," said Dr. Kishor Mehta, a professor in the civil engineering department.

"What were houses made of? Were they old? Were they new? Were they constructed with timber or masonry? That will make a difference," Mehta said.

Before the 1970 tornado hit Lubbock, there was no way to calculate the wind speed of a tornado. A University of Chicago researcher, Dr. Ted Fujita studied Lubbock's debris-filled streets, streets that looked strikingly similar to the scene in Alabama. 

"You always have to look at damage and from the damage try to assess and back-calculate what the wind speed may have been, depending on the buildings and structures," Mehta said.

Mehta worked extensively on the Fujita scale. The scale classifies tornadoes based on intensity.

Texas Tech teamed up with meteorologists and other experts to create the Enhanced Fujita Scale. That scale was recognized by the National Weather Service in 2007.

The deadly tornadoes in the south haven't been classified on the scale yet.

Retired Texas Tech meteorologist Dr. Richard Peterson says he saw the storm system coming days before the disaster. "I commented to one of my colleagues that this was going to be the kicker for storms east Texas and on," he said.

Peterson says Monday and Tuesday's high winds across the South Plains were part of the same system that produced the tornadoes.

Tech expects to decide on sending researchers to the devastated areas before the weekend.

"Our goal is to learn from what has happened," Mehta said.

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