Engineers create a natural disaster in a laboratory

Windstorms like hurricanes, tornadoes, and derechos have caused severe damage in the United States.

Now a facility, the size of a football field, is in the works at Florida International University Extreme Events Institute to predict the impact of natural disasters.

From hurricane-force winds to storm surges, the institute just won a $12.8 million grant to build it and study those hazards.


What do you want to know

  • CRF designs facility to study extreme winds, storm surges and wave action
  • NICHE will simulate 200+ mph winds and 20ft storm surge
  • Damage from tropical storms and hurricanes doubles in the United States every 20 to 30 years
  • The National Hurricane Center is working to improve its operational forecasting

The FIU will use the grant money from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to build a national large-scale test infrastructure for community hardening during extreme wind, surge, and wave (NICHE) events.

Purpose of the research

According to NOAATropical storm damage between 1980 and 2021 has cost the United States more than $1.1 trillion in total, with an average cost of $20.5 billion per event.

Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters in the United States in 2021 (NOAA)

NICHE aims to improve disaster response during storm events and advice on waterproofing infrastructure. Additionally, it will be nil in coastal populations along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

“The longer-term goal is to create a single, national, multi-user, large-scale facility to improve our knowledge and reduce the impacts of extreme windstorms,” ​​said Dr. Ioannis Zisis, co-director of Wind Research in engineering at CRF.

Dr. Zisis told Spectrum Networks that the facility will help engineers deal with the impact of storm hazards on residential homes, buildings, bridges and more.

Although the facility is headquartered at FIU, nine other universities are involved in the project, including Stanford University, Colorado State University and Georgia Institute of Technology, to name a few. to name a few.

The “Cat 6” project

The CRF’s new extreme weather facility is also called the “Cat 6” project, as it will test homes and other structures in winds of 200 mph and storm surge 20 feet.

However, the project will have no effect on the wind scale of Hurricane Saffir-Simpson. The FIU has the Wall Wind of Wind (WOW), which already tests the wind speeds of a Category 5 hurricane (157 mph and above).

“It is not in the interest of the NICHE team to work on definitions related to the Saffir-Simpson scale,” said Dr. Zisis.

The “Cat 6” project is only interested in studying the effects of extreme winds on structures.

Simulate a natural disaster

So how will the new facility mimic an extreme weather disaster?

“The design phase will include computer simulations, field observations and physical experimentation through a prototype test rig built the size of a football field, including fans generating wind speeds of order of 180 to 200 mph and a wave pool to simulate surges and wave action,” said Dr. Zisis.

Flooding from Hurricane Sally inundates the streets of Pensacola, Florida in September 2020. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

The CRF says it will take four years to build before testing the impact of windstorm events.

In addition, the simulator will also include large-scale low-rise buildings, water and electricity distribution systems, roads and bridges.

Predict the potential for storm damage

The idea for NICHE began because of the devastating damage caused by windstorms, especially hurricanes.

The National Hurricane Center told us that “damage from tropical storms and hurricanes doubles in the United States every 20 to 30 years.”

Dennis Feltgen, meteorologist and head of communications and public affairs for the NHC, also said that “the need for improved forecast timeliness and accuracy has never been greater” due to growing coastal populations and complicated evacuation protocols.

NASA image of Hurricane Florence in 2018. (NASA)

The NHC is working on ways to improve the accuracy of hurricane forecasts by approving projects to increase lead times, reduce areas under warning and improve overall risk communication.

Bay News 9 meteorologist Mike Clay in Tampa has tracked hurricanes for more than two decades and added this perspective on forecasting hurricane impact.

He says the NHC is doing “a good job of adding storm warnings to areas that aren’t prone to high winds. But so far storm surge warnings here have been 50/50 at best.

Clay also says, “We’re seeing weaker tropical storms being named. A lot of tropical storms have been short with low ACE (accumulated cyclonic energy) over the past few years. As long as they keep naming everything on the basin-wide, I don’t see us going back to some of those seasons that we’ve seen in the past with a very low number of named storms.”

This year, NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR) launched a partnership with the new William M. Lapenta Lab and Hurricane and Ocean Testbed (HOT) to improve operational forecasting.

Feltgen says that no matter how many storms occur in a hurricane season, if “a storm hits your location, it’s a bad season.”

weatherproof homes

CRF hopes that NICHE can have the same impact as its WOW project.

Through their research, WOW improved building codes in Florida and contributed to better design of structures against extreme winds.

Street flooding near a house in Florida.

Although NICHE and WOW are separate entities, Dr. Zisis told us that researching both will help “achieve the ultimate goal of resilient communities and infrastructure systems.”