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'Wall of Wind' machine tests hurricane effects

Published October 12, 2006

SWEETWATER — Here’s what can happen if your home is hit by a hurricane’s 115 mph wind and rain for 10 minutes straight:

- The roof shingles peel off like sheets of paper.n Windows burst. Glass shatters.

- The front door flies open, allowing water and wind to ruin everything inside.How do we know this? We saw it.

Thursday, in suburban Miami-Dade County, a team of researchers cranked up two 500-horsepower engines attached to fans and aimed them at a condemned house.

The damage seemed obvious, but researchers said it is necessary to test how buildings will survive under hurricane conditions — and make necessary adjustments to materials.

“Everything in the past has been done with wind tunnels,” said Stephen Leatherman, the director of the International Hurricane Research Center at Florida International University. (If the name sounds familiar, that’s because Leatherman is also known as “Dr. Beach,” the guy who annually rates sandy vacation spots nationwide.)

“This is a holistic testing of a structure.”

Leatherman  likens the tests to the auto crash tests done in laboratories with dummies. “Those changed the public’s perception of vehicle safety, didn’t they?”

Leatherman’s contraption — dubbed “the Wall of Wind” — looks like a giant airboat, albeit one with two fans and a giant sprinkler system.

The $1-million machine replicates Category 3 winds up to 120 mph. He is building a second one with six fans and hopes to someday build one with 18 fans that will mimic a Category 5 with 160 mph winds and be housed at the hurricane research center in Sweetwater.

Meanwhile, Leatherman and his researchers will assess the damage to the concrete block house that took the brunt of the manufactured winds Thursday.

He expects to discover small tweaks to building materials that will mean the difference between, say, a few missing shingles and catastrophic water damage.

One thing was immediately clear, said Leatherman: Don’t bother taping windows with masking tape or any other kind of sticky-backed material. The tape was the first thing to go.

“It’s really a lesson that masking tape is worthless,” he said.

Tamara Lush can be reached at or (727) 893-8612.

[Last modified October 12, 2006, 23:43:57]

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