Ernst “Ernie” W. Kiesling, longtime professor at Texas Tech University and known as “father of the safe room” for his development of above-ground storm shelters, has died. He was 87.

Kiesling, P.E., F.ASCE, observed in the 1970s that small interior rooms were often the only things that remained standing following an intense tornado. This led to his development of prototype above-ground shelters that could be constructed or retrofitted into bathrooms and walk-in closets. It was only after the 1999 Oklahoma City tornado that these ideas gained acceptance. After testing shelters from many companies and seeing problems with their design and construction, he held a meeting of tornado shelter producers at Texas Tech the next year. 

The National Storm Shelter Association was born out of that meeting. Issues concerning quality were addressed with manufacturers, which led also to the NSSA tornado shelter industry standard. A few years later NSSA and ICC (with some financial support from FEMA) entered into an agreement to develop a consensus national standard – the ICC 500 Standard for the Design and Construction of Storm Shelters. Kiesling served on the ICC/NSSA committee for its first two editions (2008 and 2014 – chairing the Debris Impact Testing Chapter Working Group). He also served as executive director of the NSSA from its inception until recently.

Kiesling earned three engineering degrees and devoted 50 years to the field of civil and mechanical engineering. He considered several options for college but chose to enroll at Texas Tech because it seemed “more hospitable to a country boy.” He eventually also held administrative and leadership roles at the university.

When an EF5 tornado struck a deadly blow to Lubbock in 1970, Kiesling and colleagues committed their professional lives to researching the safety of structures. His teams became something like an ambulatory fortress, and his legacy of wit, integrity, and humility is widely recognized and deeply felt. 

Hours before his passing, Kiesling was on the phone with NSSA, still working toward the next conference and enthused by the prospect of the next Kiesling Award being conferred in his honor.

In 1975, Kiesling built a storm shelter in his own house and opened it for public inspection.