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The storm before the storm

FIU researchers study how construction methods and materials might withstand hurricane winds.

A lowly porch light managed to withstand the barrage of hurricane-force wind and water.

But the front door blew in, several windows were shattered and water soaked drapes and furniture inside a small house in Sweetwater that was blasted by an ungainly contraption known as the ``Wall of Wind.'' The ``wall'' pushed out 115 mph wind, while an array of pipes provided the water needed to simulate typical hurricane rains.

The make-believe storm, staged under sunny skies Thursday, is part of the groundbreaking work being done at Florida International University's International Hurricane Research Center and Laboratory for Coastal Research. The goal - to find how building materials, constructions and actual structures stand up to massive storms.

``This test will tell us what fails and what we need to fix,'' said Dr. Stephen Leatherman.

In hurricane-prone Florida, studying how construction methods and materials withstand hurricanes can prevent future damage.

Insurers, legislators and regulators now view making homes and buildings stronger - known as mitigation - as the best way to contain rising insurance costs. Homeowners and business owners are straining under premiums that have doubled and tripled in the past two years.

To jump-start mitigation, the Florida Legislature set aside $250 million this year to provide low-interest loans to homeowners who add shutters, impact-resistant windows, roof supports or new roofs.

Thursday's test, which subjected the 1950 house to 115 mph winds for 10 minutes - courtesy of two V-8 engines - provided FIU researchers with insights on how older buildings fare in storms. Typically, insurers penalize older homes with higher premiums, assuming they will fare worse in storms because they were built under less rigorous standards.

CONDEMNED HOUSE

The home, owned by the city of Sweetwater and condemned because it had been neglected, was donated to the research project. It had no shutters or protections against the storm.

Jalousie windows, typical to '50s-era homes and considered vulnerable to burglars and hurricane winds, did not blow out immediately. The front windows held up for about five minutes. When flying debris - tossed in by a student working with this project - hit the windows, the damage began. Several windows at the back of the house also blew out. Others were rattled by the wind.

The front door, which opened in as old Florida building codes allowed, wasn't much protection from the high winds. It blew in shortly after the FIU researchers cranked up the Wall of Wind, well before the wind reached its top speed during the test. Hurricane and building experts say protecting all of a home's openings is critical. Once the wind gets inside a house, a storm does its major damage.

Current stricter building codes require doors to open out. That way, the frame provides additional support.

STATE AID

FIU's hurricane research center is the legacy of Miami-Dade's We Will Rebuild effort after Hurricane Andrew devastated South Dade in 1992. Now, its work is state-funded.

The Wall of Wind project has drawn $387,000 from RenaissanceRe Holdings, based in Bermuda, to build the second phase, which will use six fans to produce winds between 155 and 160 mph - a Category 5 hurricane. The state of Florida has contributed another $600,000 to $700,000 to the project so far.

FIU, which began building the Wall of Wind two years ago, estimates the next phases will cost about $5 million because a permanent structure is needed to house the wind machine and test materials. The school has applied for state grant. A key decision on this grant is due today.

As a joke and as a way to test an old wife's tale, researchers fashioned ``Xs'' over the house's two front windows with masking tape. Many consumers still believe the tape will reinforce windows and perhaps lessen the damage from broken glass.

In reality, the tape was no match for the stiff wind. It was peeled almost immediately once the wind kicked up.

``We showed the masking tape was worthless,'' said Leatherman.

MiamiHerald.com: Click on today's extras to watch a video of FIU's `Wall of Wind'

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