When a disaster hits, structural engineers learn from the destruction
When you first see the sheer magnitude of destruction where a hurricane made landfall, “there’s usually a take-your-breath-away moment,” says Tracy Kijewski-Correa, a structural engineer at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. But Kijewski-Correa and her colleagues catch their breath and begin their work surveying the damage inflicted on buildings along the hurricane’s path. Their immediate findings aid rescue operations and early responders, and their detailed examinations fill crucial gaps in engineering studies about how to build better along the coast.
Since 2018, Kijewski-Correa has been the inaugural director of the Structural Extreme Events Reconnaissance (StEER) Network, part of the US National Science Foundation’s Natural Hazards Engineering Research Infrastructure (NHERI) program, which sends volunteer engineers to assess damage from hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, and tsunamis.
StEER teams use a mobile phone app to report battered buildings and take high-resolution images tagged with GPS location data, which they share with the public. Some teams deploy aerial drones, taking thousands of photographs and using them to generate 3D images of the scene, says Ian Robertson, a structural engineer at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. Automated imaging analysis software can also pore over drone images—for instance, to estimate the number of damaged roofs.
The engineers try to capture the details of a representative sample of buildings, rather than targeting the most spectacular wreckage. All of this information and analysis is helping them learn the sometimes-subtle reasons why two adjacent, seemingly identical, homes often meet radically different fates, perhaps because of hidden differences in their construction or because one was hit by a highly local force such as a tornado-like microgust.