Urgent storm surge study after crippling hurricanes

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MIAMI (AP) -- Research engineers in Florida are warning the latest round of hurricanes battering the US are a wake up call to town planners and emergency services, because large scale evacuation won't be possible in future.

Hurricane Harvey, moving toward the Texas Gulf Coast, can be seen from the International Space Station. Harvey strengthened to a Category 2 storm early Friday. It could hit land with up to 3 feet of rain, 125 mph winds and 12-foot storm surges. (Aug. 25)

They say properties in regions most affected by hurricanes should be able to withstand the weather.

Studying hurricanes has fast become a crucial subject.

This facility belongs to the University of Miami, it was built to start measuring and trying to predict the ferocity of the hurricanes which spin through the Caribbean and America's southern panhandle.

So far in 2017 Maria, Irma, Jose and Harvey have created havoc, but according to forecasters this isn't an especially busy season.

It's not just this year.

The Atlantic hurricane season went into overdrive in 2016, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2008, 2004, 2003 and especially 2005, when forecasters ran out of names for storms.

That season included deadly Katrina, Rita and Wilma, which set the record for intensity.

This is the most active Atlantic major hurricane generation on record, according to an analysis of 167 years of federal storm data by The Associated Press.

The analysis found that no 30-year period in history has seen this many major hurricanes with winds of at least 111 mph,

According to Colorado University, September 2017 had more days with major spinning hurricanes and more overall hurricane energy expelled than any month on record.

These have been fuelled by warmer than normal ocean temperatures and favourable wind conditions.

Whether this is the result of natural phenomena, or the result of global warning is not clear.

Here at the University of Miami Professor Brian Haus from the Ocean Sciences division is among researchers who are looking at collecting the data from the hurricanes outdoors and recreating them in the laboratory.

The hundred mile per hour winds in her replicates what people have experienced this year.

Haus says: "When the computer models are trying to model intensity, you know what the storm intensity is, they need to know what's happening at the surface. They need to specify in their equations that go into those models how much heat is getting out of the surface in the form of temperature and water vapour. How much energy is coming off the ocean to power the storm, so that's really a key part of the intensification process. The equations we use right now, the way they scale that are properly taking that into account we think."

He points to the surging water in the purpose built wind tunnel and says: "It's what the mariners, the ancient mariners used to call a white out, when they can no longer see where the ocean was."

The instruments measuring the storm in Naples, Florida shows winds reaching nearly ninety miles per hour.

It's part of research being conducted by the University of Florida.

Professor Forest Masters from the University's School of Sustainable Infrastructure & Environment warns: "We had a tough year, just like 2004, 2005 and 2008. 2017 is going to be another year for the books."

Scientist say there isn't incontrovertible evidence one way, or another, that the hurricanes are linked to global warming, but they do say it's time to rethink the policy of mass evacuation.

According to Masters: "Global warming is an important part of the discussion, we certainly know hurricanes can have an effects on storms in the long term whether that be slight intensification, they're definitely going to get wetter, maybe they move more poleward, but that should really not overshadow a discussion we've been having for years and that is buildings are not performing at the level we expect."

The cost of rebuilding from Harvey and Irma is massive, with various insurers putting the bill at anything between four and hundreds of billions of dollars.

It also meant insurers are looking at the way people are building homes and workplaces.

This simulation shows the devastation caused by winds in excess of one hundred miles per hour.

Masters says: "The goal of wind engineering is to reduce the loss of life and property during extreme wind events and to do that we have to use a specialised set of tools to tease out information that tells us what kind of loads that might have (sic) on a structure, what kind of damage it might experience and so we use wind tunnels like the one here to figure out the first part and so if you look at the back, at the background there you can see these fans they drive wind through this tunnel and all these rough elements around me simulate the effects of buildings and trees upwind of structures. And this allows us to recreate this hurricane wind field in the miniature and in that area we can test buildings and other structures to really understand how they perform."

Insurers are using videos like this one to hit home the importance of improving the structures of buildings to withstand extreme weather.

Masters believes government action is vital: "Hurricane Hugo in '89 and Hurricane Andrew in '92 were wake up calls to the community of professionals that design, construct, inspect and insure buildings. We improved the load pack in the building making sure that those loads are acting on top of the structure goes down the foundations like they should, you know preventing full collapses of buildings. We implemented testing standards to put different building systems through torture tests to evaluate whether or not they would hold up in extreme winds. We've also done a lot of work on improving our understanding of the buildings that the designers have the right starting point to reach a final design."

In the US alone Irma and Harvey caused 135 deaths.

Those who lived in the path of the storms were told in no uncertain terms to leave, to seek safety.

This video was filmed above the Florida Keys.

The tailback snakes on for miles.

Scientists say this sort of mass evacuation will be impossible in years to come.

Masters says: "Where do people go during the storm? And we saw this during Irma, mass evacuation in Florida, during Maria nobody could evacuate. Now let's think long term, let's think fifty, sixty, seventy years from now as our population grows, I mean just here in Florida alone a thousand people a day are moving in the state. Evacuation is not going to be an option in the long term and we really need to be reassessing how we're designing and homes and buildings to withstand wind effects, because at some point we're all going to have to shelter in place."

Of the last thirty years, nine hurricane seasons were "hyperactive" according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.