Reading a story related to the EF5 tornado that hit Moore, OK. on Monday, someone in comments said that these types of tornadoes could destroy skyscrapers in midtown Manhattan. Could an EF4 or EF5 actually destroy the structure, or would it just cause all windows to be blown out?


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Depend's on your definition of "destroy", it could surely do significant damage but I do no know of any collapses due to tornado. The damage will be greatly dependent on the building geometry, lateral force resisting system, surrounding buildings and terrain and can be difficult to predict.

Let's first take the example of residential home. The roof system of the house will act as the diaphragm holding the walls of the house together. Any wind force will create uplift (upward pressure / suction) on the flat or angled faces away from the wind. The large winds in a tornado will lift off the roof of the house, thus comprising the diaphragm and the houses's ability to resist any lateral load.

The same phenomenon will happen on tall buildings, but the consequences will be greatly dependent upon the lateral force resisting system of the building and its geometry, that said, commercial buildings are not designed to withstand 200mph winds as consistent with EF4/5 tornadoes. The exterior cladding, particularly glass as you have indicated, will be broken and is the typical observed damage of a tall building in a tornado. In theory, after the glass is broken the winds will be flowing through the building and not only around it; however, even if this does reduce the lateral force on the building (due to the reduced area of wind being resisted) the uplift issue as described for the residence will remain. The combined action of a substantial lateral force and uplift force could definitely damage the substructure if significant enough.

A modern tall building in a seismic region would fare much better as it is designed and detailed to under go large plastic deformations and absorb significant amounts of energy.

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Another issue is the effect of the surrounding tall buildings (as is the case in Manhattan) will effect the wind profile and speed the buildings are being subjected to. However, I would only be speculating on what that effect would be.