LUBBOCK (CBSDFW.COM) – Videographer and storm chaser Jake Shannon and I traveled to Lubbock Texas to visit with the professors and doctoral students at the world-renowned WISE program at Texas Tech University. We traveled I-20 to Sweetwater and then headed north on 87 up into the panhandle. It is an amazing drive if you are going to do a story about the wind: wind mill farms dominate the landscape on both sides of the interstate. The spacing of these wind mills is a study in fluid dynamics, yet another working project at WISE (Wind Science and Engineering).
One of the star attractions at WISE is the VORTECH tornado simulator, thought to be the largest one on earth and the brain child of Dr. Darryl James. It is on the old Reese Air Force Base (I was born in the hospital there so literally the wind carried me back home). They finished the project just last year and have started a series of new research avenues. We saw small-scale houses smaller than shoe boxes packed with air pressure sensors (tiny hollow plastic tubes with a transmitter on the end, there are almost a hundred packed inside these small scale boxes). The size of the model house is in direct proportion to the winds created by the vortex; though the actually winds are closer to 35mph to the scale the represent about 200mph winds. The researchers at WISE record the hundreds of sensor points to determine what parts of the structure receive the greatest wind load.
Across the large hanger for VORTECH is the field research group. The University owns two truck-mounted radar units to drive out to severe weather events. They also employ “sensor sticks”, large tripods they anchor into the ground in the path of hurricanes and tornadoes to measure the winds around the event. Jake and I hope to go out with them in May during to storm chase, they pull with them two trailers with about a dozen of these portable observation sites to quickly deploy around a potential super cell (and hopefully but rarely a tornado).
Likely you’ve seen a story on the giant potato gun they operate at WISE. At least that’s what Larry Tanner calls it; he is the brain behind the research facility. Let’s say you make a door, window or wall that claims to be “storm proof”. It would be tested here; in fact just about all products marketed in the United States get the acid test: getting hit with a 2×4 piece of lumber about 16ft long moving 100mph per hour. According to their field studies this best represents what a tornado is going to throw at you. To test doors they use a huge air bladder that pushes up against the door to equal 250mph winds. What I like about both of these test procedures it is produces yes or no answers. Pass or fail: the 2×4 goes breaks into the structure or it doesn’t. The door (and frame) collapses or it doesn’t. Can’t get a more clear answer than that.
We went out to the air field. On the west side they have all sorts of huge research projects going. Here one of the first large model structure test buildings sit. It was near campus years ago but since moved to the air base. It’s a metal building about the size of two story house. Through out the structure they have measure pressure points on the skin so they can tell how the wind pushes against it. There is lots of wind out in Lubbock, especially on a wide open space like an airport. Just the week before they had a sustained wind at 50mph. This building has produced a remarkable treasure trove of information over the decades and still enlightens today.
So why is the center of wind research in Lubbock Texas? In a word: tragedy. On the night of May 11th, 1970 a powerful tornado went through the university and downtown, killing 26 people and injuring 1,500. The key players in the WISE program experienced first hand this traumatic event. It changed the course of their academic lives. A small group at the university decided to do what they did best: use their brains to figure out how to reduce the death toll when a tornado hits. They dedicated their lives to it and created one of the premier Wind Research facilities in the entire world, a place where just about every building code concerning wind load was conceived, tested and taught to builders across the United States. But the story really is deeper than that.
ALL the professors at Texas Tech went through that Tornado that night, ALL of them personally affected in some way. They decided to WORK TOGETHER.
You can’t imagine how difficult it is to implement such a simple statement like the last one. Think about the days after 9/11 in this country when the FBI, CIA and NSA were asked, for the sake of our counties safety, to share information. Ten years later and this is still a problem. It is difficult to share budgets, credit