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FIU Extreme Events Director: Prototype Facility Will Test Forces of a ‘Category 6’ Hurricane

Hurricanes are becoming more powerful and destructive. One of the goals of the facility is to anticipate and learn from what a Category 6 hurricane would bring. The damage and destruction from a 185 mph sustained event hitting a highly developed U.S. coastline would be unprecedented.
  • Lori Chordas
  • August 2022
WALL OF WIND: Current research at Florida International University is leading to performance-based designs that are making a significant impact on mitigating hurricane damage and influencing enhanced building codes. To perform hurricane mitigation research, the wind engineering team at the Extreme Events Institute’s International Hurricane Research Center and College of Engineering and Computing at FIU has built the largest and most powerful university research facility of its kind, capable of simulating a Category 5 hurricane. The National Science Foundation has designated the Wall of Wind as one of the nation’s major “Experimental Facilities” under the Natural Hazards Engineering Research Infrastructure program. Photo courtesy of NSF-NHERI Wall of Wind, Florida International University

WALL OF WIND: Current research at Florida International University is leading to performance-based designs that are making a significant impact on mitigating hurricane damage and influencing enhanced building codes. To perform hurricane mitigation research, the wind engineering team at the Extreme Events Institute’s International Hurricane Research Center and College of Engineering and Computing at FIU has built the largest and most powerful university research facility of its kind, capable of simulating a Category 5 hurricane. The National Science Foundation has designated the Wall of Wind as one of the nation’s major “Experimental Facilities” under the Natural Hazards Engineering Research Infrastructure program. (Photo courtesy of NSF-NHERI Wall of Wind, Florida International University)

The intensity of hurricanes continues to rise, resulting in higher sustained wind speeds and increased flooding and storm surge. Since 1924, there have been more than three dozen documented hurricanes in the North Atlantic that packed wind speeds of 157 miles per hour or higher and reached a Category 5 level on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale.

As waters in the Atlantic continue to warm, the potential is created for storms to intensify even more and produce sustained wind speeds that could reach as high as 200 mph. Richard Olson, director of the Extreme Events Institute at Florida International University, spoke with AM Best TV about FIU's reception of a National Science Foundation grant to design and prototype a facility to test winds of 200 mph, waves and storm surge.

“What we're hoping to do is inform the public sector and the private sector and the insurance industry to get ahead of the loss curves so that the reserves and coverages are tailored for what is coming, not for what has happened in the past.”

Following is an edited transcript of the interview.

Can you tell us about the award that FIU received from the National Science Foundation and your plans to create a new state-of-the-art storm testing facility that will be able to test the forces of a storm with wind speeds in excess of 200 mph?

The key to understanding what we're facing is to try to stay with and hopefully ahead of nature as nature changes. Hurricanes have three components. They have the wind, of course, which everyone realizes, but there's also the storm surge and the wave action on top of the storm surge. That leads to flooding and water impacts.

People forget that you hide from wind but you run from water. Water is the actual principal cause of death in most hurricanes. Our intention is to design and prototype a facility that can integrate extreme winds, storm surge water movement, wave action, and then flooding. You have to get all of the components of a hurricane together in a single experimental facility if we want to truly understand not only what we're facing, but what we will be facing in the years to come.

Richard Olson Extreme Events Institute at Florida International University

“Our intention is to design and prototype a facility that can integrate extreme winds, storm surge water movement, wave action, and then flooding. You have to get all of the components of a hurricane together in a single experimental facility if we want to truly understand not only what we’re facing, but what we will be facing in the years to come.”

Richard Olson
Extreme Events Institute at Florida International University

How will you be partnering with other universities and private companies to design and construct the facility's prototype?

Our university partners, it's a power group. I call it the Dream Team for research—University of Florida, Oregon State University, Stanford, Notre Dame, Georgia Tech, Illinois, Colorado State, Wayne State, and the private firm Aerolab, which has extensive experience with wind tunnel creation.

When you look at the combination of research expertise, it's really important, because this is a complementary team where everybody brings a particular experience and expertise to the table. It's a research dream team, as far as I'm concerned, although our researchers—they're more modest than I am. I can't imagine a better team of research universities.

What's driving the rising intensity of hurricanes in the Atlantic basin, and is that prompting the need for a new category to the Saffir-Simpson scale? What would be the characteristics and benefit of creating a Category 6 designation?

First, I have to say that Category 6 does not officially exist for the National Hurricane Center, NOAA's National Hurricane Center. Category 5 starts at 157 mph wind speed.

I have to tell you, when I saw Hurricane Patricia off the west coast of Mexico in 2015, Patricia hit 214 mph. Then in 2019, we had Dorian next door to us in the Bahamas. Dorian hit 185 mph sustained, right next door to South Florida.

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Truth of the matter is, Dorian swung at the last minute, thankfully, to the north, but for several days, it looked like it was heading up 8th Street in Miami. That really got our attention. This is more personal. When I see a storm at 185 mph or 180 even, anything above that, it just feels like a different … I know I'm not supposed to say that it's a thing, but it felt like a different animal. I was looking at that storm and I was going—I've been through a few hurricanes here—I am really scared.

It looked different, and I saw those numbers. For us here, we call this our Cat 6 project.

What potential physical damages and other types of losses could a storm of that magnitude cause?

You have your finger on the key question. When you looked at a hazard that is changing, a hazard that is increasing, Dr. Rick Knabb at The Weather Channel, who is a former director of the National Hurricane Center, captured it by saying these storms are bigger, stronger, wetter, slower.

The loss curve, the loss estimates—we have to get ahead of those, because right now, it isn't just additive. There are points, obviously, when we're looking at very extreme winds, and storm surge, and wave action, where we're going to see or we have the risk of damage and destruction that we've just never seen before.

You already talked about Dorian and some of the other hurricanes that we've seen over the years. In recent years, are there other hurricanes in the Atlantic basin that would fall into what we maybe would call the designation of a Category 6 event?

We've seen what can happen with our urbanization and our coastal development, and the way that we get hit, especially within the first 10 to 15 miles of the coastline, by the combinations of wind and water. That includes flooding. None of us will forget Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and then the storm surge along the Gulf Coast.

These are learning events—actually, they're teaching events—but you have to be paying attention to do the learning. For me, Hurricane Dorian in 2019 was a teaching event that we missed, because it didn't hit us, because it swung north.

We didn't actually pay enough attention to what could have happened with 185 mph sustained storm hitting a major urban area like Miami. We have to get ahead of what storms like Dorian will present to us. It's a challenge to learn from what nature is doing and how nature is changing. The damage and destruction from a 185 mph sustained event hitting a U.S. coastline that is highly developed would be unprecedented.

How will the research from the testing facility be used? How will those findings aid in the creation of more-resilient communities and protecting civil infrastructure during extreme events?

One of the keys to what we call community resilience is to see not only the physical components, but how the physical components of resilience will mesh with social, economic and even political aspects. The public wants to be able to trust science and government that we can get ahead of these increasing hazard events.

For me, when you look at resilience, you're looking at it as a multidimensional requirement, and we have to include social, economic, policy, political, public health along with the evolving hazard. It is the challenge of the next 30 to 50 years.

How will insurers be able to use the research and benefit from the findings?

What we're hoping to do is inform the public sector and the private sector and the insurance industry to get ahead of the loss curves so that the reserves and coverages are tailored for what is coming, not for what has happened in the past.

Craig Fugate, the director of FEMA in the Obama administration, had three words to describe resilience. He said insurance is resilience.

No truer words have ever been spoken. The key to that is that the insurance industry is the backbone, you might say, the financial backbone for most people to be able to bounce back, which is vernacular understanding of resilience.

Without the insurance industry, and without them being, in a sense, together with nature and, from my point of view, ahead of natural hazards, we are going to be in deep trouble. They need to be on the curve and, I would say, ahead of it, of potential losses.

The losses look like they're going to be going up with these more intense hurricanes.

Related: Best's Commentary: Despite New Reform Law, Florida Property Insurers to Face Continued Financial Pressures

What are the next steps for the new storm testing facility? When will it be operational? When do you expect to start seeing data and results from the testing?

The National Science Foundation is very careful with its funding. This is a design and prototype project because NSF is not going to invest in a large-scale facility—I mean, the eventual facility could be the size of a football stadium—they're not going to do that until we can demonstrate with our university research partners that the design is feasible and that the prototype at a scale, that they're both feasible. At that point, then the science and the engineering will come together for a major proposal.

Now, time frame. There is a chance that we could retrofit an existing facility and add fans, etc. That's one option. The other option is to build a new facility from the ground up, brand new. We don't know yet, because there's a cost-effectiveness, there's a trade-off. Maybe a retrofit would work. Maybe it would be better to do a facility from the ground up.

I don't expect us to be able to make that decision until the end of this year, 2022, maybe earlier.

Then we will do the prototype, and then if everything proves out, then this integrated or combination, if we go with a different option, then this kind of research, which would be wind, surge, wave, flooding, I would say in three to four years, we could hopefully be starting that.

Then it's a question of construction. I think we're still looking six, seven years out. We're trying to go as fast as we can, but you can't go too fast or you'll make a mistake.

FIU's Extreme Events Institute has been doing so many exciting things over the years. Can you share some of the other projects that you've been working on?

We work very closely with NOAA's National Hurricane Center, which is on the FIU campus. It's a big campus, so there's a bit of a drive. You don't walk there. We have been working with them very closely on storm surge in the Caribbean Basin. Not just the islands, but also the east coasts of the Central American nations.

One of the more exciting aspects to it is that we're providing the technology that supports high-resolution but low-cost storm surge mapping. In many countries, when you get an evacuation order, and you don't trust or you have had bad experiences with previous evacuation orders, you don't follow the evacuation. That's what we call life safety risk. We're very enthused about that.

We also have the hurricane public loss model, which is a wind-based model for insurance losses in the state of Florida. One other project that is the basis for what we're doing is the current Wall of Wind, which is a hurricane simulator capable of reaching Category 5, 157 mph. I've seen it hit 162 and it shook me up.


Lori Chordas is a senior associate editor. She can be reached at lori.chordas@ambest.com.



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