Keeping Buildings Safe from Wind in Natural Disasters: TAMEST Member Profile of Kishor C. Mehta, Ph.D.(NAE)

Selda Gunsel Profile
As a civil and structural engineer, it was the extreme winds of Texas’ High Plains region that first interested TAMEST member Kishor C. Mehta, Ph.D., P.E. (NAE) in the design of buildings to withstand severe winds during natural disasters. In fact, he says, it was a chance tornado that tore through and devastated much of Lubbock in 1970 that solidified his future researching the effects high winds have on buildings and communities.

The P.W. Horn Professor of Civil, Environmental, and Construction Engineering and Director of Wind Hazard and Infrastructure Performance Center at the National Wind Institute at Texas Tech University has spent his career ensuring Texas buildings are strong enough to protect our citizens from risk.

Dr. Mehta connected with TAMEST to discuss his career in wind engineering and the upcoming two-part TAMEST 2020 Natural Hazards Summit he is co-chairing, hosted by Texas Tech University on June 2 in Lubbock and the University of Houston on October 20 in Houston.

What made you get into the field of wind engineering? 

A very severe tornado struck the city of Lubbock on May 11, 1970, causing 26 fatalities, many injuries and a large number of damaged and destroyed buildings. At the time, damage investigations and analysis of the failed buildings and structures revealed that we did not know very much about the effects of tornadoes on buildings.

This event and other examples of hurricane damage investigations led me to pursue research on the effects of high winds on buildings, which is now called wind engineering.

Talk about what it is like to work in your field.

Winds in real storms of hurricanes and tornadoes are very complex and vary with each storm, so trying to predict wind effects on buildings is always a challenge. In addition, wind-building interactions and wind loads on buildings depend on turbulence, direction, the shape of the building, area of the building (such as roof corner) as well as gustiness of the wind.

We can do testing in wind tunnels, but the wind generated in a wind tunnel is artificial. Most of my work has been conducted in the field with natural wind.

What value do you think TAMEST brings to Texas?  

TAMEST is a unique organization which represents highly accomplished individuals residing in Texas.

It provides an opportunity for the disciplines of medicine, engineering and science to integrate and look at the current problems and paths to the future. It also has a potential of providing advice to the state in pursuing policies for the benefit of the people of Texas and to the nation.

Why do you work and live in Texas?

The state of Texas and, in particular, Texas Tech University has provided me the opportunity to pursue my passion of education and research.

The High Plains of Texas is a great place to live with some of the friendliest people you will find anywhere. Even though I was born and raised in India and my wife was raised in New York State close to the Canadian border, we love living in Lubbock. The Rocky Mountains of New Mexico and Colorado are within a day of driving which provides a change of scenery in a few hours.

I have lived in Michigan, New York City and Arizona, but settled in Lubbock for the past 50-plus years. I love that it is small enough that it is easy to get around, but large enough to provide amenities of life.

What do you wish more people knew about your work? 

Some of the significant work that my colleagues and I have done may not be known to a lot of people but have certainly transformed the way we look at the wind’s impact during a storm.

A few examples that come to mind dating back to the 1970s:

  • Our research showed that large open areas in buildings, such as gymnasiums, are more likely to get damaged in extreme winds.
  • The development of criteria for above-ground shelter for tornadoes and extreme winds with a mandate that schools have required shelters in the middle of the country where severe tornadoes occur.
  • Enhancing the Fujita scale (now EF Scale) to rate intensities of tornadoes, which has helped in reducing construction materials needed for shelters and critical facilities such as emergency operating centers, call centers and nuclear power plants.

And finally, in 2002 I was elected as Distinguished Member of the American Society of Civil Engineers. ASCE in its 166 years of history has elected only 707 Distinguished Members. Currently, there are less than 250 Distinguished Members in the Society’s membership of 150,000.

Why are you leading the TAMEST 2020 Natural Hazards Summit?

The summit is designed to publicize the impacts of natural hazards and to seek solutions and policy changes to reduce suffering of people.

One long-term goal of the Summit is to make constructed facilities more resilient to windstorms, which will reduce economic losses and reduce suffering of people. We can make technological advancement in resiliency, but if the results are not implemented, the suffering and economic losses will continue to rise.

What do you hope people walk away knowing about natural hazards after the summits in Lubbock and Houston?

By listening to national and state experts on the state of knowledge in forecasting storms, in issuance of warnings, in emergency response and in resiliency of constructed facilities, people will understand that significant technological advancements in the past few decades have been made.

Preparing for natural hazards, which may increase with climate change, requires initial investments and constant improvements. This initial investment pays off during the life of the building and structure.

TAMEST’s 2020 Natural Hazards Summit will occur in two parts. Part one, “Wind, Tornado and Drought Impacts,” will take place at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas, on June 2, 2020. Part two, “Hurricane, Flood and Wildfire Impacts,” will take place at the University of Houston on October 20, 2020. Registration opens soon. For more information, visit tamest.org/naturalhazards.