Government agency recommends updates to U.S. building codes after study of Joplin tornado

Updated Jun 13, 2014

Information gathered after an extensive study of the costliest tornado on record could lead to new building and construction standards as early as 2016.

The May 22, 2011 tornado that ripped through Joplin, Missouri was rated EF-5—the most powerful rating available from the National Weather Service—with winds between 200 and 205 miles per hour. The storm killed 161 people and destroyed 8,000 structures at a cost of $2.8 billion, according to a report from the Joplin Globe.

Current U.S. building codes include standards meant to protect buildings in the event of a hurricane, flood or earthquake. However, there aren’t yet any standards that protect against tornado-force winds.

RELATED: Joplin, Missouri has seen more than $1 billion in construction since devastating tornado

Earlier this year, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, an agency of the U.S. Commerce Department, completed the most comprehensive study of a tornado ever done. In the last two months, NIST representatives have been meeting with building code bodies like the American Society of Civil Engineers and the International Code Council, asking that they implement 16 recommendations based on what they have learned from the Joplin tornado study.

The ICC sets the basic minimum residential building code in the U.S. and brings together construction industry representatives every three years to update the code. The NIST’s meeting with the ICC concerned the development of a strategy that will lead to changes in the language of the building code. Some of the NIST recommendations could be put into place in the 2016 update but others might not make it in until 2022.

Because Joplin lost its main hospital and two fire stations in its tornado, one of the key recommendations the NIST is making is that “critical buildings and infrastructure such as hospitals and emergency operations” be designed in such a way that they are able to continue operating during and after a tornado.

The group is also pushing for the installation of tornado shelters in new and existing apartment buildings and condos and commercial buildings (like big box retail stores) in areas that have been designated as being at risk of falling in the path of a tornado. The group would also like to see the use of aggregate, gravel and stone as a roof surfacing material or roof ballast in tornado-prone areas be prohibited.