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New high tech storm panels may stop “Mother Nature’s worst”

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - Oklahoma is tornado country - home to some of the most wicked weather on the planet.

But, Tornado Alley has an equally lethal neighbor to the southeast.

Often, under the shield of darkness, long tracking, notorious outbreaks stretch from east Texas to Georgia.

Dixie Alley has recorded its share of strong and violent twisters.

"When the 2011 storms hit, it was really devastating for Alabama," said Timothy Wick, University of Alabama, Birmingham senior associate dean of engineering. "We knew we had technology that could be applicable to stopping debris that's flying around from tornadoes."

Engineers at UAB are now using their skills in military ballistics to stop Mother Nature.

"It's far easier to stop a 2 x 4," said engineer Ben Willis.

Thousands of research hours and two years of development and testing have resulted in unique storm panels.

They are built to protect people against flying debris.

"The gentleman who does the testing came in and gave this a funny look like, 'There is no way that's going to pass.' He's used to testing things out of concrete and steel," Willis said. "It definitely changed his perception after he tested a couple of panels and the 2 x 4 ricochet back to his control panel."

They claim it is equivalent to six inches of concrete and not much heavier than a standard 4 x 8 sheet of drywall.

The panels are made from 50 percent recycled material.

"This is your milk jugs and detergent bottles," Willis said. "So, you're telling me this is stopping tornadoes? Yes."

This first-of-its-kind technology has been approved by the National Storm Shelter Association.

A fortified closet was recently added to a Montgomery, Alabama home.

Any room can be retrofitted with this unique on-campus creation.

UAB hopes this home is the first of many.

"We can now come up with relatively simple solutions cheap solutions that can be put in homes, schools, nursing home and churches," Wicks said.

These revolutionary storm panels may look simple, but they're built to withstand Mother Nature's absolute worst.

"You think you can't stop Mother Nature," Wick said. "There are certain things - tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes - that we have no real power to affect our survival and, in fact, we do."

The next time monster storms emerge, whether it's Dixie or Tornado Alley, buildings will soon be fortified and safer with technology born from tragedy.

UAB is currently working on licensing and hopes to have the panels on the market in the next year or so.