FIU unveils today’s most powerful hurricane simulator

By Martin Haro

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.

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