Older building codes in Kentucky may lack tornado protections

Building codes have improved since 2010, and new tornado maps are being introduced in a new set.
Published: Dec. 16, 2021 at 5:37 PM EST|Updated: Dec. 16, 2021 at 6:59 PM EST
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - All buildings, from police and fire stations to homes and businesses, must be built to a certain standard.

However, those standards have not typically included tornado protections.

Kentucky currently adopts a building code with rules builders have to follow when they’re constructing new buildings for the entire state, including standards for tornados.

However, the new standards didn’t come into play until another tornado tore a path through Missouri a decade ago.

“Death and destruction from tornadoes can be reduced,” Eric Letvin said back in 2011.

Following the EF5 tornado that destroyed part of Joplin, Missouri a decade ago, the National Institute of Standards and Technology studied what rules builders had to follow.

It found a glaring gap when it came to tornadoes.

“They do not protect against tornado hazards which include extreme wind speeds and impact from wind borne debris,” Letvin said.

The NIST can only make recommendations and it made several including strengthening building codes.

“In most cases, neither residential nor large commercial buildings in Joplin adequately protected building occupants,” Letvin said.

The current code requires new buildings to withstand a maximum of 105 to 120 mile-per-hour winds depending on their type.

Storm shelters are required in newly constructed schools, police and fire stations, and 911 call centers.

The majority of tornadoes are EF3 or smaller, with wind speeds as high as 165 miles per hour, and storm shelters must withstand 250 mile-per-hour winds.

The tornado that hit Mayfield was an EF4, with winds between 166 and 200 miles per hour.

Census data show 96 percent of all the buildings in Graves County were built before 2010, long before Kentucky’s current code.

For example, the courthouse was built in 1889.

“We know how to make structures that can withstand the majority of tornadoes, but so far we have not included protection against them in model codes and standards,” Letvin said.

However, builders will never hold all the cards against nature.

New tornado maps are being published by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Those will reflect the greatest tornado risk depending on the size of the building, but they will have to be ultimately adopted by Kentucky, which may take some time.

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