AUSTIN (KXAN) — Researchers from Texas Tech University are using an artificial tornado machine to discover what homes can survive a real one.

The researchers, Dr. Christopher Weiss and Dr. Darryl James, use data gathered from real tornadoes to power their artificial ones.

“We get ourselves into the position of these tornado-producing storms and if everything goes right, we can see the contact of the tornado with the ground,” Weiss said.

Dr. Darryl James and Dr. Christopher Weiss use a machine that can produce artificial tornadoes to test building materials used in homes. (Courtesy: Texas Tech University)

He chases tornadoes with a portable Doppler radar, which he then places near where he expects a twister to form. The radar then gathers data on wind speeds near the tornado.

Back at Texas Tech, James, vice provost for institutional effectiveness and a professor of mechanical engineering at Texas Tech, takes the data and enters it into a large machine capable of producing a miniature tornado.

“We call it the Tornado Cannon,” James said.

James runs different building materials beneath the tornado cannon to test how they hold up to the winds. He says that the machine is capable of launching a 2×4 at a wall. “I call it the toothpick maker because basically, it shatters the 2×4.”

Judging the strength of a tornado

Tornadoes are categorized by the damage they do to structures. This is called the Enhanced Fujita Scale. “After the tornado has gone through, you’ll have a team of researchers typically from NOAA, which will come out, and they will then look at what the damage has done,” James said by determining the damage, NOAA is able to best guess the wind speed.

According to James, knowing the strength of a tornado, they can better understand how it will interreact with a home.

“There are lots and lots of different factors that go into potential damage, as well as what type of tornado was it?” James said. “Was it one of those classic real thin, narrow tornadoes that you see? Or was it one, it was very broad and wide?”

All this information allows James and his team to test what material can best handle debris being tossed at it.

“Reinforced brick is the one that you see doing the best,” James said. “When I’m saying reinforced, I’m saying brick that has on the backside of it oftentimes cinder blocks that each cell is filled with concrete and there’s rebar in there and so those types of exteriors is what I have seen to withstand those missiles.”

James said that while debris can cause damage, a tornado can also cause damage by ripping a house from its foundation. “Tornadoes not only have the push, but they also have a suction up and that pull, that vertical lift up very very different and can far exceed the weight of the building.”

Newer homes, which have stricter building codes, also stand up well to tornadoes, but James said this isn’t always true. “In one case in Tennessee, that I was a witness to, I had a brand new home that got actually picked up and actually flipped and tumbled,” he said.

James said that homes that are improperly or inadequately secured to the ground are most at risk of being picked up and tossed around.

In addition to mobile homes, James said that pier and beam-style homes can also be easily ripped out of the ground. He said you should evacuate those types of homes for sturdier ones in the event of a tornado.