May 19, 1999 Writer: Aaron Hoover
Sources: Tim Reinhold -- (864) 656-5941, firstname.lastname@example.org
Kurt Gurley -- (352) 392-5947, email@example.com
GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- As the hurricane churns towards land, researchers fan out into evacuated coastal cities in the storm's path, setting up equipment that could provide vital new information on nature's most powerful storms.
It sounds like a sequel to Twister. But the scene will become a reality this summer, when engineering professors and students from three universities, including the University of Florida, launch a project to learn more about how hurricane-force winds affect houses.
The goal of the Florida Coastal Monitoring Program is to measure wind speeds, forces and pressures on houses retrofitted for hurricane preparedness. Researchers want to learn how effective the retrofits were, how to design more hurricane-worthy homes and whether building codes are up to snuff. They also want to gather information about low-altitude wind speeds and directions in hurricanes, data that is largely unavailable today, they say.
Clemson University in Clemson, S.C., is leading the project, with UF and Florida International University participating. Tim Reinhold, a Clemson associate professor of civil engineering, said the research may shed light on what has become a hotly contested issue.
"After a hurricane strikes, wind speeds tend to get exaggerated and many people believe the storm was so strong damage was inevitable," he said. "Others will say the damage was a result of shoddy construction. And then there are people who say the codes just weren't stringent enough.
"Who is right? Right now, there's so little data as to how strong the winds were and how strong the houses were built, anybody can put up as much smoke as they want to."
The researchers currently are outfitting 10 homes in South Florida with brackets, wiring and other equipment in preparation for the start of the June 1 - Nov. 30 hurricane season. The homes, plus 10 more in the Florida Panhandle to be outfitted later this summer, are receiving hurricane retrofits as part of the Florida Department of Community Affairs' Residential Coastal Mitigation Program. The program, launched after Hurricane Andrew in 1992, provides assistance to homeowners to retrofit homes against wind or water damage. Homeowners agreed to participate in exchange for $8,000 to $12,000 in retrofits.
Kurt Gurley, a UF assistant professor of civil engineering, said researchers will track hurricanes, then work with meteorologists to determine the most likely landfall.
When a hurricane appears about two days away from southeast Florida or the Panhandle, two teams of researchers will load up equipment in vans based in Gainesville, then deliver and install it in the prepared houses in the hurricane's path, Gurley said.
The equipment includes instruments that measure wind speed, direction and pressure and computers that collect and interpret the data for each home. As many as 20 Frisbee-sized discs placed on the homes' roofs will hold many of the instruments, he said. "They're going to tell us how strongly the wind pushes and pulls on the home," he said.
Shortly before the hurricane strikes, when researchers have a more definite idea where it will make landfall, they plan to deploy at least one large trailer with several monitoring instruments directly in the storm's path. "We'll instrument the houses, and as we learn more about where the storm is going we'll put the trailer in place," Reinhold said.
Reinhold and Gurley said little is known about hurricane wind speeds and forces at altitudes of below 30 meters, despite the impact these winds have on houses or other small structures. They also said that, despite evidence that the gust structure of the winds affects wind loads and influences hurricane damage, there also is little information about exactly how the effects may differ from other types of storms. "What our project does is get at some of that science to provide a baseline of what's going on," Reinhold said.
The Florida Department of Community Affairs is funding the project with grants totaling about $560,000, much of it going for the purchase of the vans and monitoring equipment, Reinhold said. Given the vulnerability of today's structures to hurricane-force winds, it should be money well spent, he and Gurley said.
"People just seem to accept wind damage as something that happens -- they don't realize there's things that can be done," Gurley said. "Even people in very high-risk areas like the Keys can do things to protect their property."
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