ORLANDO, Fla. – Hurricanes are complex weather systems, categorized based simply on their windspeeds. But the damage hurricanes cause comes from more than just wind. Direct deaths and damage in a hurricane can also come because of storm surge, rainfall, and tornadoes.
As technology evolves, new products and building codes have been developed to help save lives when a storm threatens. But how can we safely test them against the complexity of a hurricane? To answer that, we need to visit a facility in South Florida.
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Located on the Florida International University campus in Miami, the Wall of Wind facility is a state-of-the-art research center that is key to advancing our ability to be better prepared when the next storm hits.
Taking us on our tour is Erik Salna, the associate director with the FIU Extreme Events Institute.
“The research we are doing here is now figuring out how the built environment can be more resilient. So, there is less damage with the next storm.” Salna explained.
And that resiliency can be easily seen in construction and Florida building codes after Hurricane Andrew in 1992. According to the National Hurricane Center, the Category 5 hurricane caused $26 billion in damage, destroying about 50,000 homes.
“It was absolutely devastating. But what it did, it woke up Florida. And now Florida is the leader when it comes to building codes, emergency management, preparedness, and hurricane research. And now we can recreate Andrew in the research environment with our testing.” Salna explained.
To develop winds of a hurricane, it starts with a literal wall of wind. Sitting 24 feet tall, the wall is made up of 12 large fans, each weighing about 15,000 pounds. As these fans ramp up, the wind is blown into a smaller tunnel called a compression zone. This is where engineers can quickly increase wind speeds of up to 157 mph.
But to truly replicate the power and strength of a major hurricane, it is more than just blowing wind. This takes us into the flow management zone of the facility. Here is where they can add turbulence, friction, and heavy rain to the mix, to create the most realistic hurricane environment.
With all the factors in action, testing can begin on products like building materials, solar panels, different roofing options, even traffic lights. During their testing, engineers and scientists work together to analyze the data to create better products to withstand the blow of a hurricane.
“Computer models and technology have come a long way and are very helpful tools. But they are not the real thing when it comes to a real wind and real water hitting a real structure,” Salna said.
And as we’ve seen in recent years, the real wind is getting stronger. Take Hurricane Dorian for example. In 2019, the Category 5 storm devastated the Bahamas as it reached winds of 185 mph.
“With climate change issues and more extreme events occurring, the U.S. as a whole has to think more forward in terms of how we can be more resilient to more extreme weather,” Salna expressed.
To stay ahead of this changing climate, FIU’s Extreme Events Institute was just awarded a $12.8 million grant from the U.S National Science Foundation to design a new testing facility with winds up to 200 mph combined with a large pool to simulate storm surge and wave action.
This new project is titled NICHE, which stands for National Full Scale Testing Infrastructure for Community Hardening in Extreme Wind, Surge and Wave Events. The hope is for this project to become part of the NSF’s Natural Hazards Engineering Research Infrastructure (NHERI), which compiles a natural hazards research community.
“This new vision will then be able to go to those higher wind speeds, bring in those other hazards of a hurricane. And now there will be one place to bring all that research under one roof, to try and capture everything that is going on when a coastal community or inland community is affected by a hurricane,” Salna described.