MIAMI, Fla. — In recent years, scientists have shown how hurricanes are getting stronger than in decades past, forcing them to create even more powerful simulations to study their effects on buildings.
"Twelve fans, 720-horsepower each — each weighing about 15,000 pounds,” said Erik Salna, associate director for Education and Outreach at the Extreme Events Institute at Florida International University. "The Wall of Wind is an amazing facility."
Located at the International Hurricane Research Center at Florida International University, researchers there use massive fans to test structures and products, in order to see how hurricane-force winds interact with them.
"Of course, you couldn't go shopping at your local home improvement store to find that. So, they did find a company in Colorado that manufactures these fans. Not for research, but their application is for underground mining operations, for air ventilation and movement," Salna said. "And it worked."
The fans can recreate sustained wind speeds up to 160 mph, equal to a Category 5 hurricane.
In the ten years since its construction, though, researchers noticed more storms are exceeding that speed.
“It can cause like a tremendous damage and tremendous impact on a community," said Amal Elawady, an assistant professor at FIU and part of the International Hurricane Research Center.
That's why FIU and eight other universities are joining together to strengthen the Wall of Wind, so it can recreate even higher sustained wind speeds, reaching 200 mph.
Just don’t call it "Category 6."
"We use a wind scale that goes up through one through five — Category 5. And at this point, there's no plan to go to a Category 6,” Salna said. “But as we look with climate change issues and extreme events and what that might mean for hurricane seasons, there is that possibility for stronger storms."
That would call for stronger structures and building codes for places like homes, hospitals and schools — no matter what kind of storm winds they encounter.
"Design codes and standards are limited. We still see failures,” Elawady said. “We need to understand the causes for failures. We need to protect people's lives."
That way, people everywhere can be safer, no matter which way the wind blows.
"The lessons learned about how to harden and strengthen a structure can be carried over to extreme wind events all across the country," Salna said.
In addition to creating stronger winds, the future plans for the stronger Wall of Wind facility will also include a massive pool that will be used to simulate storm surge and inland flooding caused by storms.