Concrete Canvas
Concrete Cloth is a cement-impregnated fabric that works like a plaster cast, but on a larger scale. Giant rolls of the material spool the fabric out across uneven ground of hastily constructed frames. Spraying the material with water begins a chemical reaction that, after some drying, results in a a low-profile structure strong enough to resist whatever Mother Nature can throw at it.
By Assistant editor
updated 5/24/2011 4:21:06 PM ET 2011-05-24T20:21:06

When tornadoes tore across the Midwest this week, they set their fury against buildings made from the same wood, steel and concrete architectural components used to construct homes a hundred years ago. For those looking to rebuild, new classes of futuristic materials might be able to provide the resistance to weather disasters those century-old housing technologies could not.

Carbon fiber, long used for smaller items such as bicycles or eyeglasses, actually works as a robust building material, producing houses that possess both flexibility and durability. Concrete Cloth, a specially impregnated fabric that becomes ridged when water is added, could create reinforced shelters on the fly. And Kevlar, the material used in bulletproof vests, can just as easily protect people and homes from the flying debris that flies about during a twister attack.

"Carbon fiber is incredibly strong and very flexible. The thinking behind carbon fiber architecture is that it can withstand earthquakes. It would be more flexible in the wind than regular structures," said Bradley Quinn, author of the new book on advanced materials called "Design Futures" (Merrell Publishers, 2011). "Then there′s the DuPont Storm Room. It′s like a tent made of metal mesh and Kevlar. It can be erected inside and protect the people from all the debris that flies around."

Kevlar, metal mesh and carbon fibers all provide a flexibility that traditional materials such as wood or concrete simply cannot match. By bending with the wind instead of bending against it, houses constructed from more supple frames have a lower chance of collapse than the more rigid structures build today. There′s a new school of architecture devoted to designing softer buildings that integrate with, rather than resist, nature in both its calm and furious moods, Quinn said.

However, futuristic materials and radical new architectural concepts come at a steep price. For residents of Joplin, Mo., many of whom suffered injury or death while living trailers or homes without storm cellars, a cheap solution like Concrete Cloth may prove more practical.

Originally designed for building military bases, Concrete Cloth is a cement-impregnated fabric that works in the same way as a plaster cast, except on a larger scale. Giant rolls of the material spool the fabric out across uneven ground of hastily constructed frames. Spraying the material with water begins a chemical reaction that, after some drying, results in a low profile structure strong enough to resist whatever Mother Nature can throw at it, Quinn said. Concrete Cloth is easy enough to work with and cheap enough to provide communal shelters for the residents of trailer parks and houses without storm cellars.

An even more radical school of architecture would move buildings out of the path of tornadoes entirely by placing them underground. Called ″subscrapers″ (as opposed to "skyscrapers"), these buildings move down into the Earth rather than up into the path of the storm, Quinn told InnovationNewsDaily.

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Video: Bird's eye view of Joplin: 'Seven miles of pure hell'

  1. Closed captioning of: Bird's eye view of Joplin: 'Seven miles of pure hell'

    >>> and good evening once again from joplin , missouri , tonight where throughout this region we are feeling kind of dangerously exposed, a kind of cruelty of this weather pattern and a double-edged sword. first of all, this was the first good clear day since the big tornado for equipment both large and small and people to come back in and look at the task ahead of joplin , missouri , where easily a third of the city is gone. some 2,000 buildings. but the problem is daytime heating. it's like a terrarium as cold air comes from the upper plains and rockies, believe it or not storms are firingi ioff tonight to our west and south. more on that in a moment. we had an uptick in the number of dead today. it stands right now at 123. again, countless people have been injured and it's still too early totally that up. this tornado in joplin brought the total number of people who have died in tornadoes in our country this year so far to 488 souls. 50 deadly tornadoes have touched down in the united states so far just in 2011 . the average, 28 of those per year. president obama announced today he will visit this city on sunday. we have a look at conditions here. beginning our coverage tonight from nbc's al roker .

    >> reporter: it's now been 48 hours since the deadliest tornado in more than 50 years touched down in joplin . and the numbers are staggering. more than 1,000 homes destroyed. hundreds of businesses gone as well.

    >> there's st. johns hospital. you can see how damaged it is from up here.

    >> reporter: but from the air, this disaster takes on a whole new dimension.

    >> you are looking at the beginning of seven miles of pure hell, the path of the joplin tornado. from the ground it's pretty terrible. from the air, it's hard to believe when you look and see the swath of damage.

    >> reporter: entire neighborhoods wiped off the map.

    >> 1,000 feet up you can see how this town of 50,000 was changed in an instantment.

    >> 300 yard spread all the way through here.

    >> reporter: back on the ground, search and rescue efforts are in full effect.

    >> move off to the side so the dog doesn't smell you.

    >> reporter: rescuers search for survivors. the emotional toll almost too much for some to bear.

    >> this used to be our home. now there is nothing left of it.

    >> reporter: at this mobile e.r. unit commander mark forbes says so far there's only been a trickle of patients to treat.

    >> we have seen a lot of cuts, some broken bones and actually some motor vehicle accidents . what we believe is people with minor injuries are just taking care of themselves at home because they believe all the facilities are overwhelmed.

    >> your assignment is between 25th and 26th street.

    >> reporter: one of those coordinating the volunteers, steve vanderbol.

    >> we are moving people from west to east covering everything.

    >> reporter: it's a massive operation with national guardsmen , fire and police, plus civilian volunteers.

    >> the resiliency of the people in this community in joplin , missouri , with everything they have gone through over the past few days and actually for the past few weeks has been something that, to me, has been happening.

    >> the only clothes we have are halloween costumes .

    >> reporter: for this family the task of sifting through what's left of the home is made easier by the support of friends.

    >> reporter: in spite of their losses the two can see a future here.

    >> it's hard to imagine joplin ever being the same, but there is so much relief help pouring in that, i don't know, maybe the town will recover.

    >> maybe it will be better.

    >>> that's the spirit that a lot of folks, brian, are clinging onto.

    >> imagine that. we have to cling to that. a basic question has to do with your line of work. this weather seems so cruel that we are watching the skies again. why is this happening?

    >> we have had the jet stream to the north. lots of warm air coming in, cold air from the plains and we've got it again tonight. severe storms , tornadoes in central ob, kansas, texas, making their way across . there is a strong risk of severe storms tonight. that will be moving east tomorrow, working its way into this area -- missouri , parts of oklahoma and on into the ohio river valley . so we are not out of the woods yet by any stretch of the

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