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Western Kentucky Tornadoes Spur Engineering Undergrad Research

August 03, 2022

Garrett Demaree, a senior from Vevay, Indiana, pursuing a degree in civil engineering, feels a calling to do what engineers do best — work to understand and solve some of society’s most complex issues.

By Lindsey Piercy

Thousands of homes, businesses, livelihoods reduced to rubble in a matter of minutes.

Last December, an EF4 tornado with 180 miles per hour winds moved across Western Kentucky leaving behind catastrophic damage in numerous towns — nearly leveling Mayfield.

People across the Commonwealth and beyond jumped into action — rallying around those who were left to pick up the pieces — including an undergraduate student from the University of Kentucky.

“My heart went out to those who lost their homes and businesses, and especially to those who lost loved ones. The lives of those affected by this tornado were changed forever,” Garrett Demaree said. “As a researcher, it’s our job to collect and study the valuable information from devastating events, so that we can better prepare for and respond to disasters in the future.”

A senior from Vevay, Indiana, pursuing a degree in civil engineering, Demaree feels a calling to do what engineers do best — work to understand and solve some of society’s most complex issues.

When Demaree was offered the opportunity to conduct research related to the tornado aftermath, he didn’t hesitate. “I had been working as an undergraduate researcher for Professor Mariantonieta Gutierrez Soto since the fall of 2020 and continued after she moved to Penn State to finish up my ongoing research project,” he explained. “Earlier this spring she invited me to join her lab on an assessment trip to Mayfield.”

Demaree quickly became an integral member of a collaborative research team that took their work out of the classroom and into the Western Kentucky community.

The goal of the project was twofold. “Mayfield suffered a direct hit from the tornado, which completely destroyed much of the downtown area. However, interestingly enough, some of the only buildings that survived were the historic masonry brick and mass timber buildings.”

This left Demaree and his fellow researchers wondering: How were these buildings — many well over 100 years old — able to survive with only moderate damage, while newly constructed buildings nearby were completely destroyed?

“What construction practices and architectural designs gave these buildings the strength to withstand a direct hit from one of the worst tornado events to hit Western Kentucky?” Demaree questioned.

Additionally, the team — 10 student researchers from various colleges and departments — was interested in studying how quickly the community was able to respond to the devastating event.

“How was the cleanup going? How are people getting access to food and water for those who may not be able to travel to the next nearest grocery store? Where are people sheltering who lost their homes? By answering questions like these, we are able to better prepare for and respond faster during similar events in the future,” Demaree said.

The group also partnered with the National Science Foundation (NSF) Rapid Response team (RAPID), which allowed them to use various forms of data capturing technology including drones, lidar scanners and street view cameras.

The technology helped create accurate and detailed point clouds of the entire downtown area, as well as the inside of many of the historic buildings. Information can then be extracted from these data sets to create models for many different areas of research.

“Additionally, we completed an extensive door-to-door assessment throughout the community utilizing a Fulcrum mobile app — allowing users to upload geotagged pictures, notes and video,” Demaree explained. “These can be given a color-coded level of destruction rating in order to visually see on a map the areas hit the hardest.”

The team is currently reviewing the extensive amount of data collected. But one thing is certain, the information will be studied and utilized by various disciplines for multiple applications.

“The immediate results from this assessment were large databases of valuable information that can be used across many different disciplines from material science to structural engineering and from supply chain studies to social sciences,” Demaree said. “We will continue seeing the impacts from this assessment well into the future as researchers piece together information from these events to find patterns and eventually solutions that can be implemented to mitigate the effects of future natural disasters.”

"Involving students in field reconnaissance missions provides a genuine way to learn about the impact that natural hazards have on the built environment. These experiences serve to train innovative professionals with knowledge of real problems that provide context to develop new solutions, understand the impact of extreme events on communities, support communities to recover and continue to develop understandings that improve resilience," Soto said. "Since we will share the data publicly, having a quality assessment is critical. Garrett has been instrumental in the team and his contribution is very valuable to the research community."

Now, Demaree is encouraging all undergraduate students to take advantage of research opportunities.

“My UK mentors and professors have been extremely supportive of my research goals and have helped me to succeed. The depth of knowledge I have gained through this experience is unlike anything you can learn in a classroom,” he said. “In research, you do not ever fully know the answer. There is not a textbook you can read that will give you the answer. You are discovering the answers to your own questions by connecting ideas, developing theories and putting them to the test.”

Because behind every building, bridge, water main and electric line are the faces of civil engineers. Natural disaster research gives them the knowledge to build stronger and more resilient infrastructure.

Through this project, and as a student-researcher, Demaree aims to not only advance his education but give back to the community.

“My ultimate goal is to create new knowledge that has the potential for making our society better, safer and stronger,” he said. “By seeing how research can impact communities helps to give a renewed focus and purpose.”

The university also continues to support students and employees directly impacted by natural disasters.

UK students facing financial challenges because of the storm damage should complete the UK Center for Support and Intervention (CSI) referral form to be connected with a Student Success team member who can talk through available crisis-related financial resources and other basic needs support. In the open box, please describe your financial needs as it relates to the incident. For help completing this form or other questions related to this process, call 859-218-SAFE.

As a reminder, the Counseling Center is available to help support you during this time. After hours and weekend phone consultation is available by dialing 859-257-8701 and pressing "1" at the prompt.

For more general questions, calls can be directed to UK Health Corps at 859-218-SAFE.