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FIU unveils today’s most powerful hurricane simulator

FIU unveils today’s most powerful hurricane simulator

August 22, 2012 at 12:00am

As Hurricane Andrew slammed into South Florida in the early hours of Aug. 24, 1992, Pedro Botta ’87 huddled with his family and two dogs in the bathroom of their home off Coral Reef Drive. The hurricane’s fierce winds roared like a freight train as the walls of the bathroom trembled. The family quickly decided to take refuge in the stronger, cinder-block walled foyer just moments before the bathroom walls collapsed. Three-and-a-half hours after the hurricane made landfall, Andrew was gone.

Windows were blown out throughout the Botta family’s house. Three-quarters of the roof was missing, and its trusses were twisted as if by a tornado. The furniture, their clothes, family heirlooms, photographs – all of it was gone.

“When we opened the door, it looked like a nuclear winter,” remembered Botta, now director of communications for FIU’s School of International and Public Affairs. “Our neighborhood was just devastated. It was unrecognizable. You realized the utter destruction. Everything that you knew was gone.”

Two decades later, as South Florida marks the 20th anniversary of Hurricane Andrew, FIU is unveiling the country’s most powerful hurricane simulator. The massive machine, known as the Wall of Wind or WOW, generates wind speeds up to 157 miles per hour for purposes of testing the hurricane resiliency of everything from private homes to warehouses to light poles.

By recreating Mother Nature’s fury, researchers will help build safer, storm-resistant communities around the world. For people like Botta who have witnessed the destructive power of hurricanes first-hand, South Florida is an appropriate home for such a facility.

“Anyone who lived through Hurricane Andrew or has seen the images of devastation and despair in communities after hurricanes, knows how important this research is to save lives and improve the quality of life for all of us in South Florida,” College of Engineering and Computing Dean Amir Mirmiran said.

Performance testing

FIU’s International Hurricane Research Center (IHRC) has been at the forefront of hurricane research for more than a decade. With IHRC’s new Wall of Wind, FIU has set itself apart from all other universities with a unique facility that allows researchers, businesses and government agencies to test and analyze how their products and services perform in hurricane conditions.

The WOW stands behind 26-foot doors on the FIU Engineering Campus. Measuring 8,000 square feet, it has 12 massive electric fans, each of them six feet in diameter. With 8,400 horsepower behind them, the fans can generate winds up to the level of a Category 5 hurricane – similar to Hurricane Andrew.

“With the Wall of Wind, we can answer many questions related to transportation and infrastructure, so that when we build, we build smarter,” said engineering Professor Peter A. Irwin, who recently joined FIU. He has consulted on many of the world’s largest skyscrapers and conducted research on the effects of high winds on large structures and long-span bridges.

Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Arindam Gan Chowdhury, a faculty member in IHRC and the lead researcher on the Wall of Wind, says his research aims to mitigate massive losses due to hurricane damage. In 1992, Hurricane Andrew caused an estimated $27 billion in damage in South Florida. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina caused $81 billion in damage along the Gulf Coast.

Richard S. Olson, director of Extreme Events Research in FIU’s Division of Research and a professor in the School of International and Public Affairs who specializes in disaster politics, said the Wall of Wind provides unmatched research opportunities to clients from private industry, the government and the academic community.

“One of its capabilities that excites me most is the testing of post-disaster temporary shelters,” Olson said. “In places like Haiti, for example, a country that was hit by an earthquake and is then subject to storms and hurricanes, you have temporary shelters that could be in place for years. We have tested those kinds of shelters in the Wall of Wind so researchers can see how well they hold up in hurricane force winds.”

Filling the void

Today’s Wall of Wind has been more than five years in the making. In 2007, IHRC’s wind engineering team from the College of Engineering and Computing assembled its prototype two-fan mobile unit, which could generate 120 mph winds with a water-injection system simulating horizontal rain. This paved the way for a bigger six-fan structure.

Now, with demand for stronger wind speed testing, FIU has made yet another step forward with its current Wall of Wind, which cost approximately $6 million to construct. The new facility’s capability to replicate a hurricane-level wind with wind-driven rain fills the void where most current wind-structure interaction experiments fail.

The Wall of Wind research team, under Chowdhury’s direction, has already had a significant impact in mitigating hurricane damage.

Recommendations made as a result of Wall of Wind testing were published in the 2010 Florida Building Code. The new code provisions based on the recommendations are geared toward decreasing the vulnerability of roofs. This research-to-application endeavor, at such a rapid pace, underscores the importance of FIU’s Wall of Wind in creating hurricane-resilient communities.