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Preparing for Category 6 hurricanes, a new facility will test winds of 200 mph and storm surge

By Jennifer Gray, CNN meteorologist

I lived and worked in Miami for four years before coming to Atlanta to join CNN. I’ve visited the Wall of Wind on the Florida International University (FIU) campus many times.

It is a wall of enormous fans inside a big warehouse-type building that can blow air up to 160 mph, which would be a Category 5 hurricane, to test infrastructure and research the power of wind.

However, in our changing climate, sadly, 160 mph isn’t strong enough. So, the National Science Foundation (NSF) just awarded a $12.8 million grant to FIU’s Extreme Events Institute for the design of a full-scale testing facility capable of producing winds of 200 mph, along with a water basin to simulate storm surge and wave action in extreme winds.

FIU will be able to build a house under the current building codes, start up the fans and see if it can withstand 200 mph winds. Will the roof detach? Will the house still be standing at all?

The water basin will look like an enormous pool. It will also be able to simulate different coastlines. Storm surge tends to be worse when the coastlines are more shallow like along the Florida Panhandle. The facility will be able to simulate all of it.

“If you think about trying to future-proof, a changing hazard environment, a hazard scape, the US hazard scape with climate change, the past is not much of a guide. In fact, it can be deceiving,” said Dr. Richard Olson, director of the Extreme Events Institute at FIU. “So, if we’re going to future-proof, we need to be able to research and test what future hazard events will look like. You can’t future-proof in a changing environment if you’re looking backwards.”

Tropical cyclones are getting stronger

It’s true. Climate change is showing us storms are getting stronger, moving slower and are holding more water than ever before. They are also rapidly intensifying, meaning the winds are increasing at least 35 mph in a 24-hour period. In 2021, five hurricanes in the Atlantic rapidly intensified. And in 2020, TEN Atlantic hurricanes rapidly intensified. Dorian was one of those storms.

“Dorian in 2019 is the one that totally got my attention,” said Olson. “It hit 185 mph over the Bahamas, and until the last day and a half, it was heading straight up Eighth Street in Miami.”

Dorian ended up causing mass destruction across Abaco and Grand Bahama.

“The scientific consensus is that we’re going to see more intense storms, so we have to research and test for more intense storms,” said Olson. “Otherwise, nature’s going to keep hitting us with harder stuff than we’re ready for.”

The facility will be the first of its kind in the world to combine wind speeds of greater magnitude along with a water component. Eventually the facility will be able to test how different types of infrastructure, roads, bridges will all respond with a Category 6 storm.

“We can start putting all of these components together to get a much better picture of what nature is going to be hitting us with,” says Olson.

Yes, I realized I just referred to it as a Category 6 storm. And it might make some of you a little uncomfortable. To be honest, it bothers me a little bit too. But to be fair, if you look at the wind scale for the hurricanes, they are all — more or less — in about 20 mph increments.

When a Category 5 hurricane’s wind speeds start at 157 mph, and we see storms with maximum sustained winds of 180 mph, it’s a number that makes me go pale.

Since 2010, there have been 18 storms globally with recorded wind speeds of at least 178 mph at some point during their life span. Irma in 2017 and Dorian in 2019 were two storms in the Atlantic to meet the threshold.

It begs the question, especially for messaging purposes, do these types of storms need a special name? Category 6? Super-hurricane? Just something to put an exclamation point on how intense these specific storms are.

But the truth of the matter is, most people who die in hurricanes don’t die from wind, but from water. I reached out to my friend, Dennis Feltgen, the public affairs officer at the National Hurricane Center (NHC) about whether he thought there would ever be a day in our future we would see a Category 6, and here is what he had to say:

“NHC has tried to steer the focus toward the individual hazards, which include storm surge, wind, rainfall, tornadoes and rip currents, instead of the particular category of the storm, which only provides information about the hazard from wind. Category 5 on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale already captures ‘Catastrophic Damage’ from wind, so it’s not clear that there would be a need for another category even if storms were to get stronger. In addition, most deaths in tropical cyclones occur not from the wind but from water — storm surge, rainfall/inland flooding, and hazardous surf — causing about 90 percent of tropical cyclone deaths in the United States. So, we don’t want to overemphasize the wind hazard by placing too much emphasis on the category.”

I do agree with Dennis, but I also think as storms become stronger, wetter and slower, there might be a day the category system evolves from what it is now, just as the EF scale or Fujita scale was enhanced in 2007. And by the way, the same facility will also test tornado and thunderstorm winds.

There are a few research facilities studying extreme winds. Watch the video below to see what 100 mph winds can do to a house.

“I think the interaction between the various components of hurricanes, the waves, the flooding, the currents, and the wind, the debris, all of that, it’s very important to simulate that as practically as possible,” said Dr. Arindam Gan Chowdhury, professor of environmental engineering at FIU. “Everything is not possible to replicate Mother Nature. But the closer we can get, the better we can learn.”

FIU along with seven other universities will partner in this endeavor. Read the full news release from FIU here.

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