Wind damage research helps homeowners, businesses owners

By Mason Stevenson, Special Projects Senior Producer
Last Updated: Wednesday, May 10, 2017, 10:41 PM EDT

At a research facility in South Carolina, scientists and researchers harness the destructive forces of hurricanes and bend them to their will.

"We’re actually creating hurricanes around structures very much like Mother Nature would do," Julie Rochman said. She’s the president and CEO of the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety. Its headquarters is in Tampa.

“This is truly a force of nature being imitated very meticulously,” Rochman said. “What is unique about the IBHS Research Center is that we’re the only facility that can do full scale testing, so we don’t need to shrink nails and shingles down to which their physical properties would change.”

What does it take to create a hurricane out of scratch and in a building large enough to hold a two-story house? A lot of fans and a mega amount of power.

“We create our wind storms at the lab by using 105 fans, each one of those fans is 350 horsepower each. If you think about all the boats around Florida and how many horsepowers those motors have, 350 horsepower each, we can create wind storms that are very realistic and when all those fans are on, we pull about 30 megawatts of power,” Rochman said.

But those fans do so much more than just create wind forces to test homes and commercial buildings. Scientists use actual wind measurements from hurricanes such as ‘Katrina’ or ‘Ivan’ to recreate the conditions.

“The science is absolutely meticulous,” Rochman said. “We can control those fans in groups of six or nine so we can create gust structures that are very realistic, that the rain will separate around the specimen and reattach. The types of vortices you’d see in the real world.”

And it's not just wind storms being created for testing. They can even make it rain, up to eight inches per hour. That's not all.

“We also, by the way, we are interested in other things besides hurricanes, we can create wildfire ember storms. We can create hail storms. Florida has those types of natural hazards as well,” Rochman said.

So why do all of this research?

“So we’re trying to fill gaps in the building science world and to do things no one has ever done before and really add to the body of knowledge about how to keep buildings intact,” Rochman said.

When putting a house or a commercial building through these tests, researchers are trying to answer a couple of questions.

“What’s the first thing that goes wrong? What’s the second thing that goes wrong? How do they cascade one to the next? If we can figure out how very specifically structures come apart, we can do a better job of keeping them together,” Rochman explained.

Afterward, they actively promote their findings in hopes they can improve the resiliency of structures against wind and water and other hazards as well, especially hurricanes.

“What we do want are the structures built here in Florida, whether they’re residential or commercial, to be able to withstand the more common type of storms,” Rochman said. “Certainly no buildings in Florida should be damaged by the type of tropical storm level wind that we see fairly regularly. We know they’re going to come. We should be able to build something strong enough to withstand those.”