In the seven years since Hurricane Wilma swept through South Florida, unexpectedly shattering thousands of glass windows in the gleaming high-rises in Miami and Fort Lauderdale, a new generation of towers have reshaped the skyline.
The new towers, built to tougher standards than the older ones that bore the brunt of the damage, have yet to face a real test of the turbulent wind, water and flying debris of a major storm.
Many residents of the trendy urban oases never have experienced a hurricane either.
While South Florida has dodged major damage this season, Sandy’s Caribbean pass is a reminder the region’s odds-defying lucky streak could end abruptly.
“We have been lulled to sleep as a community. When we do get the next Cat[egory] 5 or anything above a Cat 3 or 4, that will be the first test,’’ said Dan Whiteman, president of Miami-based Coastal Construction Group, a large builder of condominiums, hotels and office towers in South Florida. He predicts the new buildings – typically designed with wind-tunnel testing – should perform well in all but the most severe conditions. “I don’t think there are going to be any significant problems with the buildings built since 2005.’’
Which is not to say the residents of the new towers who opt to stay during a big storm would get off easy.
“If you’re on the 49th floor of a 52-story building, the wind could be whipping pretty severely up there,’’ said Assistant Fire Chief Joseph Zahralban, emergency manager for the City of Miami, who urges residents to respect evacuation orders.
As a rule of thumb, those who somehow end up in a tower during a strong windstorm should take shelter in the fire-escape stairwell, he said. Staying below the 10th floor is another standard guideline.
Tamara Oyarzabal and her husband, however, found themselves caught in their 30th-floor condo at Brickell Bay Club in Miami during Hurricane Katrina. Despite storm shutters, the pounding rain seeped through flimsy sliding-glass doors flooding the apartment. The electric went out. Ankle-deep in water amid howling winds, they bailed buckets of water into their bathtub. “The windows bent to a degree I would not have thought glass could bend,’’ said Oyarzabal, who responded to an inquiry for The Miami Herald’s Public Insight Network. “We will never again stay in our high-rise if an actual hurricane comes our way.’’
Rob Vango, who holed up on the 10th floor of a Hollywood Beach condo during Hurricane Wilma, said the older building “swayed like you wouldn’t believe’’ even as the ocean seemed eerily flat. During a gust of wind, the building moved so much, Vango said he was knocked off the toilet in the pitch black of a power outage. Water was flying out of the fish tank, Vango recalled in Public Insight Network comments.
Wind speeds typically are higher at the higher floor levels, and buildings may sway to and fro. As with the fish tank, water dutifully collected in high-rise bathtubs per emergency checklists will slosh around as the building moves.
“There is nothing wrong with the building moving. The only trouble is if people in the building decide to ride it out. They’re going to feel the building swaying backward and forward a foot or two. That’s to be expected,’’ said Peter A. Irwin, who is Wall of Wind professor of practice in the civil and environmental engineering department at Florida International University. “People can feel the motion, and if you’re in a very flexible building, it may not take much to make it move. People who bought in one of those buildings may not be very happy.’’