Even though the last decade of hurricane season has been relatively dormant, it’s surprising that storms haven’t caused more issues during college football season.
After Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Rita and Hurricane Wilma caused major disruptions in the 2005 college football season — a minor inconvenience compared to the loss of life and devastation wrought by those storms — the SEC schedule has now been affected by hurricanes in each of the last two years. In 2015, flooding in Columbia, S.C., brought in part by Hurricane Joaquin and other meteorological effects, forced South Carolina to move an Oct. 10 home game against LSU to Baton Rouge.
This week, Hurricane Matthew — at one point a Category 5 storm — caused the indefinite postponement of Florida’s home game against LSU, and delayed the Georgia-South Carolina game in Columbia until Sunday.
The storm won’t directly hit Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Fla., or Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, but the question remains: What would happen if a Category 3 storm (or higher) hit these stadiums?
Dr. Lauren Stewart, an assistant professor of structural engineering at Georgia Tech, attempted to answer this hypothetical question for SEC Country.
“Firstly, wind design makes up one of the many parts of the various hazard loads that we consider when we design structures,” Stewart wrote in an e-mail. “The US has adopted building codes and states, such as Florida, have additional requirements for high wind conditions. This is what makes the structures in the US so safe and stadiums would be designed to withstand the type of wind load environment, such as those generated from hurricanes.”
Obviously, hurricanes have caused damage to stadiums in the past. In 2005, Katrina — which made landfall in Louisiana and the Gulf Coast — caused flooding and wind damage to the Louisiana Superdome. Specifically, it tore away parts of the roof, but the structure itself did not fail even in those 140-mph winds.
“We do not always design for a no-damage condition,” Stewart continued. “Often times human life safety is the priority and we allow the structure to have some damage. For example, from a hurricane of this type you could see damage to cladding (or facade) and minor damage to roof structures. In high-wind situations, debris often becomes airborne and can impact glazing (windows), walls and roofs. Again, we design for life safety so the walls, etc., would be designed to stop the debris and not injure any occupants.
“A football analogy is that we design a good offensive line that can take a hit to ensure the QB’s safety.”
That’s why these structures are often used as safe-shelters during major storms. While water damage can cause flooding if the stadiums are in the path of the storm surge, the stability of the structures, and the fact that they are built to protect the occupants in extreme conditions, means that they can suffer damage without collapsing.
The 2005 Atlantic storm season had the biggest impact on the college football season. The damage to New Orleans and the Superdome caused by Katrina, along with its use as a refugee shelter, forced Tulane to play the entire season on the road. It also caused LSU to move a home game against Arizona State to Tempe, which was announced on Sep. 6, 2005, and played four days later.
Hurricane Rita and Hurricane Wilma, which hit in late September and October of that year, affected the scheduling of more football games. Rita forced Texas A&M to move a home game against Rice up in the schedule, from a Saturday to a Thursday. Wilma’s path through Florida caused Miami and South Florida to postpone games against Georgia Tech and West Virginia, respectively.
Wilma caused minor structural damage to the Miami Orange Bowl, but it was still used as a FEMA relief center. The storm hit Florida on Monday, Oct. 24, 2005, but Miami still hosted North Carolina on Saturday, Oct. 29. The game, however, had to be moved from a night-time kickoff to the afternoon because light towers were damaged.
“… Minor cracking and damage is often acceptable in practice for extreme loading events because you can still get people out of the building (safely),” Stewart wrote. “You may need to repair/replace the structure afterwards, but the people were the priority. Collapse of the structure, on the other hand, is not acceptable because it will endanger the occupants.”
Hurricane Andrew, one of the costliest and deadliest hurricanes in recent history in 1992, didn’t affect the University of Miami’s schedule that season. It hit Florida on Aug. 22, but Miami wasn’t scheduled to play its first home game until Sep. 19. In 1995, Hurricane Opal caused a Thursday night game between Auburn and Mississippi State to be moved to Saturday.
Yet, despite the impact hurricanes have had, the structures that house college football have met the Force of Nature head-to-head — and survived.