“Designing for Disaster” at the National Building Museum

Fujita portrait

The Southwest Collection is proud to have loaned items from its collected papers of world-renowned meteorological researcher Dr. Tetsuya Theodore “Ted” Fujita to the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. The Museum is presenting a multimedia exhibition titled Designing for Disaster, a call-to-action for citizen preparedness—from design professionals and local decision-makers to homeowners and school kids—investigating how and where to build communities that are safer and more disaster-resilient. The exhibition opened on May 11, 2014 and will remain on view through August 2, 2015.

US Tornado Map 1930-74-21x16

From earthquakes and hurricanes to rising sea levels and flooding, natural disasters can strike anywhere and at any time. Recent history shows that no region of the country is immune from the rising costs of storm and disaster damage. Visitors to Designing for Disaster will explore new solutions for, and historical responses to, a range of natural hazards. Research materials such as Fujita’s documentation of several decades of tornadoes will not be the only items on display. Artifacts from past disasters, such as a door battered by Hurricane Katrina, will express the destructive, persistent, life-altering power of nature.
Fscale classification of 1971 tornadoes (2)
A cornerstone of the exhibit is a true-to-life, FEMA-specified “safe room”—one of the few defenses against a tornado or violent storm—in which exposed layers illustrate how it was built to withstand tornado-force winds and flying debris. Such destruction was the primary research focus of Dr. Fujita, whose conclusions would lead to the creation of the F-Scale (‘F’ standing, of course, for Fujita) which is now the worldwide standard for measuring the destructive power of tornadoes.

Lubbock tornadoes
Driven by ways to reduce risk before the next disaster, case studies will explore a range of flexible design and planning schemes, public policies, and new forecasting technologies. Drawing on data gathered from past disasters, such as the Lubbock, Texas F-5 tornadoes of May 1970 that damaged over a quarter of the town, the studies are varied as the solutions. They range from engineering advancements and seismic retrofits of esteemed historic buildings (such as the University of California at Berkeley’s Memorial Stadium) and bridges (the Eastern Span of the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge), to urgent, hands-on lessons, through models, animated drawings and interactive displays that demonstrate how to strengthen homes, hospitals, schools, and other structures.

The National Building Museum is America’s leading cultural institution dedicated to advancing the quality of the built environment by educating people about its impact on their lives. Through its exhibitions, educational programs, online content, and publications, the Museum has become a vital forum for the exchange of ideas and information about the world we build for ourselves. For any public inquiries, call them at (202) 272-2448, visit www.nbm.org, or connect with them on Twitter: @BuildingMuseum and Facebook.

– by The National Building Museum

The Lubbock Tornado: May 11, 1970


On May 11, 1970, a category F5 tornado tore across the city of Lubbock, Texas (home of the Southwest Collection,) affecting roughly a quarter of the town. Thousands of homes sustained damage and several hundred were completely destroyed. The damage totaled $250 million (approximately $1.5 billion if it had occurred in 2014,) 26 people lost their lives, and many more were injured. Not until an F5 tornado struck Joplin, Missouri, in 2011 was a town’s central business district so devastated. Last Sunday was the 44th anniversary of the disaster, and with that in mind we’re sharing images from our collections that relate to the event, such as this photograph of downtown’s Metro Tower. One of the tallest structures in Lubbock, it was easy prey for the high winds as you can tell by the section of façade that was sheared off.

Lubbock Avalanche Journal top

Almost all of the issues of Lubbock’s newspaper, the Avalanche-Journal, dating from that time can be found among our collections. This issue from the day after, May 12th, describes the disaster in detail, including a rough sketch of the tornado’s path. As more details emerged over the next several weeks, the Avalanche-Journal would share them. In fact, the bulk of its coverage understandably centered around the tornadoes, their aftermath, and the resulting national attention that Lubbock received.

Letter from Fujita

Scientific interest in this phenomenon ran high, drawing the attention of none other than Dr. Ted Fujita, the renowned severe storms researcher who created the F-scale for measuring tornadic intensity (in fact, the F in the scale is an abbreviation for Fujita.) The data he collected in Lubbock helped inform his theories about dual-vortex tornadoes, refine the F-scale, and better understand other meteorological causes and consequences of tornadoes. This letter expressing Dr. Fujita’s concerns about the spread of misinformation and the dangers it posed for safety during future storms is one of many items documenting his continued awareness of events in Lubbock.


Among the data Fujita gathered were photographs, pieces of debris, and wind speed measurements from meteorological stations as far away as Odessa and Amarillo, Texas. Using those, he was able to assemble detailed diagrams such as this one, which shows the path and complex wind patterns of Lubbock’s two vortices. This is the final draft of a chart he used in his nationally-published Satellite & Mesometeorology Research Project report, Lubbock Tornadoes of 11 May 1970.

Q & Marsha Sharp

We’re ending with an aerial picture of the corner of Avenue Q and 4th Street (now the corner of Avenue Q and the Marsha Sharp Freeway.) This hotel was torn apart by the storm, as was much of that side of town, but as folks who drive through that intersection in recent years may have seen, a hotel can still be found there: the Inn of the South Plains. The buildings to either side of it, however, were never rebuilt. A tour of Lubbock’s affected areas today shows similar evidence of an effort to recover from one of the most devastating tornadoes in U.S. history. For those who want to see more of the Fujita Papers, or any of our other collections, weather-related or otherwise, our Reference Staff is always happy to arrange a visit.

Tornadoes, the F-Scale, and Dr. Tetsuya Theodore Fujita

The Southwest Collection houses the papers of Dr. Tetsuya Theodore “Ted” Fujita. Dr. Fujita (1920-1998) was a world-renowned meteorological researcher whose work changed the way that people viewed and dealt with severe storms, in particular tornadoes and hurricanes. The collection, entitled The T. Theodore Fujita Papers, 1896-2003, encompasses over one hundred boxes of photographs, articles, published and unpublished reports, conference proceedings, charts, graphs, slides, film, correspondence, maps, and other research materials from his five-decade career.


Ted Fujita was born in Kitakyushu, Japan. After receiving his doctorate from Tokyo University in 1950, he began a career as an associate professor at the Kyushu Institute of Technology. In 1953, he began teaching at the University of Chicago where he served as a professor until his death in 1998. At the University of Chicago he focused his research on meteorology, especially severe weather, such as tornadoes, hurricanes, and microbursts in the United States and internationally.

Photo and description of the Fujita Tornado Scale ADJ watermark

Fujita, an observationalist working well before the era of digital recording devices and DOPPLER radar, pioneered new techniques for documenting severe storms, including aerial photography and the use of satellite radar images and film. He is famous for creating the Fujita Scale, or F-scale, for assessing tornadic intensity based on a storm’s wind speed and the amount of damage that it caused. To properly define this scale, Fujita methodically documented physical damage, loss of life, and the social effects of tornadoes and hurricanes on communities. He also theorized multiple vortex tornadoes before they were captured on film.

Fscale classification of 1971 tornadoes (2)

Much of this research was performed as part of nationally prominent projects that Dr. Fujita led, participated in, or supported, such as the Satellite and Mesometeorology Research Project (SMRP), the National Severe Storms Project (NSSP), and the creation of the Wind Science and Engineering Research Center at Texas Tech University. This research not only led to changes in building codes and improved early detection methods, but also attracted the interest of government agencies including NASA, the United States Navy, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Private institutions such as the Climatological Consulting Corporation also sought Fujita’s expertise during their investigations of legal and financial claims in the wake of severe storms.

US Tornado Map 1930-74-9x12

Maps such as this were used to document tornado outbreak over many decades. Later editions would contain information on the Superoutbreak of 1974.

The most notable materials in the collection pertain to 1974’s Super Outbreak of tornadoes. The incident was the second largest tornado outbreak on record for a twenty-four hour period, producing one hundred forty-eight tornadoes occurring in thirteen states in the Midwest, South, the Eastern seaboard, and the Canadian province of Ontario. The Super Outbreak’s death toll of three hundred was not exceeded until the recent April, 2011 outbreak. This portion of the collection consists of hundreds of photographs, several boxes of research material and publications, and a variety of maps, charts, and other documentation created by Fujita in the Outbreak’s aftermath.

The finding aid for the collection may be viewed at Texas Archival Resources Online (TARO): http://ow.ly/mYpw8, as well as through the Southwest Collection/Special Collection Archives website at http://ow.ly/mYpF0