Image: Forrest Masters
Kristen Bartlett Grace / Univers  /  LiveScience: Kristen Bartlett G
University of Florida wind engineering researcher Forrest Masters stands on a newly completed, fully portable hurricane wind simulator on May 29, 2007.
updated 6/8/2007 12:17:49 PM ET 2007-06-08T16:17:49

Wind engineers have created the world’s largest portable hurricane simulator, which they will use to blow over vacant buildings with Katrina-strength winds to test how they withstand the fierce forces of a hurricane.

“We want to conduct experiments to evaluate real homes in communities that are impacted by hurricanes,” said project leader Forrest Masters of the University of Florida. “This simulator also gives us the ability to test home retrofits and new building products aimed at preventing hurricane damage.”

The simulator was made by mounting eight 5-foot-tall industrial fans on a trailer. The fans are powered by four marine diesel engines that together produce 2,800 horsepower.

At full power, the fans turn at about 1,800 revolutions per minute, producing wind speeds of about 100 mph. A duct reduces the space available for the air from the fans to flow through, pumping up the speeds to a potential 130 mph — a Category-3 storm on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale (Hurricane Katrina was a Category-3 storm when it made landfall on the Gulf Coast).

Water jets on the system can be used to simulate the unrelenting 35-inch-per-hour rainfalls that can inundate structures during a hurricane.

Blasting vacant homes with these winds and rains will show what damage a hurricane does and exactly how it does it. The research hopefully will provide information that could be used to improve Florida’s building codes to prevent some of the worst damage that can happen during a storm.

The parade of storms that hit Florida in 2004 showed that previously improved codes helped prevent catastrophic building failures that year, but also highlighted the challenges that remain in blocking wind and rain that leaks in via windows, doors and roofs, said Rick Dixon, executive director of the Florida Building Commission.

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