Interview with Erica Kuligowski

Erica Could you give us a short overview of the impact of the Joplin storm?

A tornado occurred on May 22, 2011 in a populated area, Joplin, Missouri as a National Weather Service (NWS) rated EF-5 tornado on the Enhanced Fujita tornado intensity scale.  This tornado touched down just to the west of Joplin and proceeded to cut a swath through the entire length of the city.  The tornado directly affected 41 percent of the city’s population (20,820 people, out of the 50,175 estimated), damaged or destroyed nearly 8,000 structures and caused nearly $2B in insured commercial and residential property losses, and generated approximately 3 million cubic yards of debris (Kuligowski et al., 2014).  More importantly, the structural damage and associated windborne debris were responsible for the majority of the 161 fatalities, the most caused by a single tornado since the NWS started keeping records in 1950.  Windborne debris was also a major factor in the over 1,000 injuries reported from the tornado which included debris impacts and fungal infections that stemmed from the wounds caused by the debris.


You were involved in the report into the impact of the 2011 tornado that struck Joplin, Mo. Can you tell us what the main outcomes and recommendations of the report were?

As a result of the NIST Technical Investigation of the May 22, 2011, Joplin tornado, NIST made 16 recommendations for improvement in three broad areas: (1) tornado hazard characterization for use in design; (2) performance of buildings, shelters, designated safe areas, and lifelines; and (3) performance of emergency communication procedures and systems and public response. A full list of these recommendations with detailed supporting rationales may be found in Kuligowski et al. (2014). These are practice-changing recommendations, aimed to ultimately make significant and measurable improvements to life safety of building occupants, and include calls for reexamination of tornado risks, and development and adoption of tornado-resistant design standards for buildings.

Was this report unique in its approach?

Yes, the report was unique in its approach. To fully examine the event, NIST adopted a multi-disciplinary approach that required the combination of expertise in atmospheric science, wind engineering, structural engineering, construction practices, emergency communication and sociology. NIST also reached out to experts in epidemiology at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Approaching a complex problem or project, like this one, from multiple disciplines enables a comprehensive understanding of the impacts of the disaster (e.g., why the unprecedented number of fatalities), which, in turn, can yield a comprehensive and effective path for improved life safety and performance of the built environment in future events.

Did you travel to Joplin in the aftermath of the storm? How did this affect you?

Yes, I traveled to Joplin with members of the NIST team shortly after the event, from May 25-28, 2011, to perform a preliminary reconnaissance of building performance and emergency communications. Then, after NIST formally established a team to investigate the disaster, I traveled back to Joplin with a colleague (Jennifer Spinney, who was on contract with NIST) to perform formal investigative interviews asking about people’s experiences (i.e., what they saw, what they did, what they were thinking), as well as more specific topics, such as the following: awareness of the event, emergency communications received, actions taken, risk perceptions, pre–existing or event–driven injuries or impairments, previous experiences with severe storms, and familiarity with and perspectives on the emergency communications system in Joplin. During both trips, I met so many amazing people – to whom I will be forever grateful for their warmth, openness and the time they took with me to share their experiences – even when they were working hard to rebuild their life again. I remember each of them by face and I actually still keep in touch with some of them today! I am forever changed by meeting them and seeing, first hand, what community, love, family, strength, faith, and resilience truly means!

You trained a fire protection engineer, but then went back to get a further qualification in sociology. Why did you decide to obtain your further qualification in sociology, rather than continuing your education in an engineering discipline?

Well, when I joined NIST in 2002, I knew that I wanted to focus on the social aspects of fire protection engineering – specifically human behavior in fire and evacuation issues. At the same time, as I was finishing my M.S. degree in fire protection engineering at the University of Maryland, College Park, I took a few courses in the Psychology department. During the Federal Building and Fire Safety Investigation of the 2001 World Trade Center Disaster, our team at NIST worked with esteemed researchers in the fields of Sociology, Human Factors and Ergonomics, and Environmental Psychology. From this work experience, I decided that if I really wanted to understand human behavior in fire, I needed to go back to school and get my PhD in a social science discipline. Both Dennis Mileti and Kathleen Tierney were influential in my decision to study Sociology, specifically at the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder. I haven’t looked back since and am excited to continue melding the concepts and processes from engineering and sociology together in each project that I work on at NIST.

Do you find this background gives you a unique approach when working on engineering projects?

Yes, very much so! I feel like many of the engineering projects that I work on at NIST, especially now that I am working in the area of Community Resilience, are multi-disciplinary problems that can only benefit from multi-disciplinary thinking! And, I find myself often switching from engineering to sociology and back again, depending upon who I am working with. I think it is important to have people, like me, who are interested in residing “on the fence”, if you will – in an attempt to merge diverse disciplines together.

Why did you decide to go into engineering?

I decided to go into engineering because of my guidance counselor in high school. I remember her telling me that because I was good at math and science, both, that I should look into engineering. She also helped me to discover this 6-week Women-in-Engineering program that University of Maryland was holding at the time. I applied and was accepted! So, the summer before my senior year of high school, I spent 6 weeks at the University of Maryland, College Park taking two college courses in the engineering discipline with a group of 20 or so other women. It was SUCH a great experience! It was during this 6-week program that I discovered fire protection engineering and I made my decision to apply to UMD and declare fire protection engineering that summer. It was the mixture of problem solving, fire and human modeling, and public safety that interested me.

Do you have a role model in engineering and why?

Absolutely – Professor John L. Bryan. He is (not was, since he will always be) the father of human behavior in fire. He is the reason that I am where I am today: he set the foundation for this field of study, he provided the Sarah B. Bryan Memorial scholarship to women fire protection engineering students at the University of Maryland, he served on my M.S. thesis committee, and he continued to offer his mentorship throughout my schooling and career at NIST. I have learned so much from him and so have many others in fire protection engineering. He wrote the seminal works in human behavior in fire – forcing engineering students to think outside of the flames and the structures and more about the people they are working to keep safe. He has changed the way we think about engineering. Even though my research has shifted from fires to disasters, I still study human behavior both during and after disaster events. I only hope that I can continue his work in a way that makes him proud.


Kuligowski, E. D., F. L. Lombardo, L. T. Phan, M. L. Levitan, and D. P. Jorgensen. 2014. Final Report, National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Technical Investigation of the May 22, 2011, Tornado in Joplin, Missouri, NIST NCSTAR 3, National Institute of Standards and Technology: Gaithersburg, MD.


Dr. Erica D. Kuligowski is a sociologist and fire protection engineer in the Community Resilience Group of the Materials and Structural Systems Division (MSSD) of the Engineering Laboratory (EL) at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Dr. Kuligowski holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Colorado at Boulder, as well as a B.S. and M.S. in Fire Protection Engineering from the University of Maryland, College Park. Dr. Kuligowski’s Ph.D. dissertation focused on occupant decision-making and behavior performed during the pre-evacuation period of the 2001 World Trade Center disaster.  Her research interests are human behavior in emergencies, including preparedness, response and recovery behaviors, behavioral modeling, and the modeling of social systems.

Dr. Kuligowski joined NIST in June 2002 and has expertise in evacuation and response behavior, people movement and behavioral data collection and analysis from fires and other emergencies, emergency communications, and evacuation modeling.

Dr. Kuligowski was part of three NIST Investigation teams. She received U.S. DOC Gold Medals for her contributions to the federal investigation of the 2001 World Trade Center Disaster, where she studied the evacuation of building occupants, and the federal investigation of the May 22, 2011, Tornado in Joplin, Missouri, where she studied emergency communication systems and public response. Dr. Kuligowski also received the U.S. DOC Bronze medal for her contributions to the federal investigation of the 2003 Rhode Island Night Club Fire, where she performed evacuation modeling to recreate evacuation scenarios of the fire event.

At present, Dr. Kuligowski is part of a team developing the Community Resilience Planning Guide for Buildings and Infrastructure Systems, which provides communities with a methodology to plan for resilience by prioritizing buildings and infrastructure systems based on their importance in supporting the social and economic functions in the community. She is also involved in projects developing a methodology to assess resilience at the community scale.