My Resilience Hero Series: Honoring Dr. Ernst Kiesling – Storm Shelter Pioneer and Friend to Disaster Safety

Whom do we have to thank for the concept of shelters that save lives in violent windstorms? Why can we depend on the quality of those shelters to withstand high winds that tear apart the structures that surround them?

And how did FLASH get the inspiration to take its first step into tornado safety?

The answer to all of the above is Dr. Ernst Kiesling. But this humble gentleman would prefer that you call him Ernie.

Last week on Wednesday, October 29, our friend, hero, and mentor – Ernst Kiesling, Ph.D. – was honored by the National Storm Shelter Association (NSSA) with the first-ever lifetime achievement award named in his honor. The Kiesling Award is an honor that befits Ernie, who is a husband, father, grandfather, engineer, and research professor at Texas Tech University’s National Wind Institute, founder and executive director of the National Storm Shelter Association—and a kind and generous guy.

Ernie’s intellect, insight, and dedication have contributed directly to saving thousands of tornado-affected families from injury and death. Moreover, his appreciation and support for public outreach have been essential in our work to overcome myths and share accurate, life-saving information far and wide.

When I first met Ernie in 1999, I was in awe and, frankly, a little intimidated. The memory always conjures a mental scene from Dorothy visiting the Wizard of Oz for the first time. FLASH was just starting out, and here we were meeting with one of the most important innovators and giants in our field. Even more, we were there seeking his blessing, expertise, and support.

We were stunned and immediately thrilled when he agreed to become one of our first academic partners. After all, here was the engineer who had the foresight to see through the devastation after the deadly, multi-state April 1974 tornado outbreak and ask one of the most important questions in high wind safety: “How did that bathroom in Xenia, Ohio, remain standing when the house, and everything else around it, was destroyed?”

Ernie and his team of graduate students determined that the bathroom walls had been reinforced to hold the plumbing, and it led them to conceptualize the tornado storm shelter—a room inside the home that provides life safety protection in a tornado, even in winds up to 250 mph.

Ernie understood that if storm shelters were truly going to be reliable, they had to have verifiable, scientifically-tested performance standards and a system to ensure compliance. Again, he and Texas Tech led the way by coordinating efforts with the FEMA Building Science Branch and the International Code Council to develop the ICC/NSSA 500 standard as well as a methodology to ensure shelters could be tested and installed to meet the standard.

His work gave birth to an industry. And today, we can build or buy storm shelters that sit above ground, below ground, are attached to walls and floors in garages and are made of all types of materials­­–concrete, steel, or even Kevlar.

Ernie, you’ve saved thousands of lives. You’ve inspired countless researchers. And you’ve taught us at FLASH how to reach for the sky with no compromise on safety. As we celebrate your NSSA Lifetime Achievement Award, thank you for your knowledge, your vision, and your leadership—you have truly made the world a safer place.

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