Page last updated at 09:31 GMT, Saturday, 7 June 2008 10:31 UK

Florida's hurricane simulator

By Andy Gallacher
BBC News, Miami

The Atlantic hurricane season is here, and for the third year in a row US government officials are predicting a busy and potentially deadly few months.

Watch the hurricane simulator

Of the 12 to 16 named storms that are forecast, between two and five could turn into major hurricanes - the kind that devastated New Orleans and have battered Florida in the past, causing billions of dollars' worth of damage.

There is little the authorities can do when a hurricane strikes.

But now a team of scientists and graduate students at the University of Florida is working on a unique project to help protect the homes and lives of millions of people.

The team has developed the world's most powerful portable hurricane simulator, a giant machine capable of reproducing winds in excess of 120mph (193kph) and recreating rain.

"We've harnessed 2,800 horse power, a locomotive's worth of power, to recreate a wind field large enough to envelop part of a single family home," says Forrest Masters, the man in charge of the project.

He and his team have strapped together eight industrial sized fans and rigged them up to four marine diesel engines so powerful that they are hooked up to a 5,000-gallon (19,000 litre) water tank just to keep the engines cooled.

"The simulator you see here is our first effort to bring the hurricane back to the laboratory, to evaluate building systems, urban landscaping and really anything that can find its way into the path of a hurricane," says Mr Masters.

How the storm simulator works

Raindrop size

The team does not just unleash the machine on the mock homes that are constantly being built and knocked down. The simulator's wind speed and even the size and volume of raindrops are closely monitored and controlled by computer.

"We've had many years of going into the field after a hurricane has passed through, and you definitely get your reality check after you go through and you see the thousands of people that have been displaced from their homes," says lab manager Jimmy Jeasteadt.

"That's what we're in this for, to make the homes last for people's safety."

The simulator was designed and built entirely by the University of Florida team and, while it is not the only simulator of its kind in existence, it can do things no other machine can.

Having the ability to recreate extreme rain and wind speeds enables the scientists to see exactly what hurricanes do to people's homes.

Piece by piece the team at the university is designing water-resistant windows, wind-proof tiles and altogether stronger structures.

Mr Masters says that for many of the students working on the project, there is also something of a personal element to their work.

"The students that staff this project grew up in hurricane-prone areas, it's part of their culture, and now they are actually getting a chance to come back, in a laboratory setting, and do something about it."

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