INTO THE WIND; What does it feel like to stand in a hurricane? At the University of Maryland, one man braves a brutal tempest inh a tunnel to find out.


COLLEGE PARK -- Let's say you're one of these people. There's a hurricane bearing down on the southeastern part of the country, ready to tear up the coast like a giant chain saw, and all you can think is: Wouldn't it be great to stand in the full, howling fury of one of those things?!

Oh, sure, you could travel to a low-lying area when the big storm comes ashore and take in the sights: the palm trees bent and groaning from the terrible winds, the gray surf pounding angrily, the beach debris flying through the air and impaling itself in the fleshy underbellies of sun-burned yahoos intent on riding out the storm because they're too stubborn (or stupid) to evacuate inland.

Or you can do this: Drive down U.S. 1 in this gritty college town, past Indigestion Row with its cheap burger joints and sub shops, and make a right onto the red-brick campus of the University of Maryland.

Hang another quick right and you're at the Glenn L. Martin Wind Tunnel, where the conditions for experiencing hurricane-like gales are considerably less severe, and the yahoo count much lower.

In the control room on a recent rainy morning, not long before a real live hurricane named Irene began threatening the coast of Florida, you meet Dr. Robert Ranzenbach, the facility's manager of research and business development.

Ranzenbach is a pleasant man with a neatly trimmed beard, level gaze and direct manner. Which is good, because it allows you to cut to the chase.

"We all know why we're here," you say, jerking your head in the direction of the tunnel. "We want the full hurricane treatment."

"No problem," says Ranzenbach, who gets these requests all the time.

Mainly they come from TV reporters who want to climb into the wind tunnel with their microphones and blow-dried haircuts, their $200 silk ties and Dan Rather-model trenchcoats and show viewers what it feels like to experience hurricane-force winds up close and personal.

You, on the other hand, are carrying a notebook and dressed along the lines of a junior varsity soccer coach: khakis and a $40 windbreaker.

As the wind tunnel is readied for your hurricane simulation, Ranzenbach provides some background on the facility.

In operation since 1949, the tunnel was constructed as part of a gift to the university from Glenn L. Martin, the famous Baltimore aviation pioneer and philanthropist. In its main test section, more than 8 feet tall and 11 feet wide, winds up to 230 mph can be generated by a huge 2,000-horsepower electric motor and propeller blades.

The wind tunnel, a self-supporting enterprise that receives no state funding, lists as its biggest customer the Ford Motor Co., which tests clay models of its vehicles to study drag reduction.

America's Cup sailing yachts have tested their keels and rudders here since 1987, and parts of everything from submarines and Vertical Takeoff and Landing aircraft to sports equipment and buildings have been scrutinized here.

But what generates the most publicity for the wind tunnel by far are hurricanes.

An average of five strike the U.S. coastline every three years. And because these howling screamers tend to cause devastating results as they approach land, the media get all worked up over the delicious story possibilities.

"Every time a hurricane comes through, the phone rings off the hook," Ranzenbach says wearily.

In recent weeks, crews from CNN, "CBS This Morning," CBS' "48 Hours," NBC and MSNBC have made the pilgrimage here.

Ask Ranzenbach if he and his staff enjoy all the limos pulling up to the wind tunnel and the big-name personalities trooping through, and he gives you a look. The kind of look you'd give if the dog just threw up on the carpet.

"No, it's a pain," he says. "We do it because it's good PR for the engineering school. And it calls attention to the university."

Tunnel awaits

In a few minutes, Ranzenbach's assistant, Roxanne Sai, announces that the wind tunnel is ready for testing.

First, you're told to empty your pockets, because flying coins, pens or combs could nick and damage the tunnel -- or you. Then another Ranzenbach assistant, Les Yeah, solemnly hands you a pair of protective goggles and straps you into a harness that looks like something you'd use to jump out of a Cessna at 3,000 feet.

The harness, they say, will be anchored securely to two bolts in the tunnel floor. At least that's the plan. You're afraid to think what would happen if it came loose. You'd probably shoot across the room and end up stapled to the far wall. When you ask Ranzenbach, as delicately as possible, if there have ever been any, um, mishaps in the tunnel, he shakes his head.

There was this one female reporter, whom he gallantly declines to name, who had her blouse fly open when the wind ripped off the buttons. "If that makes it into the [station's] Christmas tape," she screamed at her cameraman, "you're a dead man!"

Aside from that, "We've never had any dramatically bad thing happen," he says dryly. "If we do, that'll be the last time we do this."

Ranzenbach leads you to the center of the tunnel, where your harness is secured to the floor.

He explains the game plan: The wind will begin blowing at 40 mph. At 75 mph, it will increase in increments of 10 mph. It will top out at 115, the highest speed the university allows humans to endure. We'll be watching you through this glass partition, he says. Give us the thumbs-up sign if you want to continue, or the finger-across-the-throat "cut' sign if you don't.

The door slams shut. An echo reverberates through the tunnel. Now it's just you and the hurricane.

Well, sort of.

In the tunnel, Ranzenbach explained earlier, "You're getting perfectly smooth wind with no [flying] debris." An actual hurricane would be much more violent and jarring to the senses.

Sai hits a switch, and wind rushes through the tunnel.

At 40 mph, the wind is equivalent to that generated by a tropical storm. Still, it's surprisingly intense. It's as if unseen hands are pushing you backward. Your windbreaker is flapping madly.

The wind increases steadily. In winds of 50 mph, Ranzenbach had said earlier, it becomes hard to stand. Now, as the wind speed passes 60, you can feel yourself rocking back in the harness, struggling to keep your balance.

Someone taps on the glass. Les Yeah holds up a flash card. The wind is now at 75 mph -- the equivalent of a Category 1 hurricane.

How do you feel? It's hard to tell. The wind feels as if it's flattening your face, forcing your nose against your cheeks. It's becoming harder to breathe with the force pushing against your diaphragm.

According to the National Weather Service, a Category 1 hurricane hitting the coast will damage unanchored mobile homes, flood coastal roads and cause minor pier damage. All you know is, if you were really out in winds like this, on the coast of, say, Florida, you'd put down that pina colada pronto and hold onto the trunk of a palm tree for dear life.

Nevertheless, against your better judgment, you give the thumbs-up sign.

At 85 mph, the wind is a steady roar. Your breathing comes in labored gasps. You're pinned completely back in the harness. It's hard to even lift your hand to make the thumbs-up sign.

Another tap on the glass. The wind speed is now over 95.

Congratulations. You are now, for all intents and purposes, experiencing a Category 2 hurricane.

If you were stupid enough to go outside in a Category 2 hurricane, here is what you'd see: roofing material torn from houses and shot into the sky like deadly missiles. Doors and windows pulled from their hinges. Vegetation uprooted. Mobile homes and piers damaged. Small watercraft torn from their moorings.

Here inside the tunnel, it's getting increasingly uncomfortable. The wind fills your ears with a roar. Your goggles are fogging. It's hard to stand, even in the harness. Your breath comes in quick, high-pitched gasps -- yi! yi! yi! If anyone could hear you, you'd sound like an asthmatic chihuahua. But you give the thumbs-up sign.


Because you're not too bright.

At more than 100 mph, though, you've had enough.

The wind has you pinned back in a position normally associated with someone passing a kidney stone. Your knees feel as if they're about to buckle any second.

You give the "cut" sign. The wind gradually diminishes. The door to the wind tunnel swings open.

"Well, you hit 102!' says Ranzenbach, beaming like he just announced a lottery winner. That's 13 mph shy of the maximum allowed, but that's fine with you.

As you unbuckle your harness with sweaty, shaky hands, you're filled with a new appreciation, as corny as it sounds, for the awesome power of a hurricane.

And then you wonder: What on earth could it be like to endure a Category 5 hurricane (sustained winds greater than 155 mph)? A howling, screaming hurricane such as Camille, which left 250 dead in seven states from Louisiana to Virginia in 1969 and caused more than $1.5 billion in damage?

Ranzenbach seems to reading your thoughts.

"Can you imagine even protecting yourself in a hurricane, much less doing some kind of activity outdoors?" he says.

No, you can't. Especially not after today. You know if you lived on the coast and a hurricane was coming, you'd be one of those poor souls sitting in the 30-mile traffic jam headed inland.

As you shake hands with Ranzenbach and prepare to leave the wind tunnel, another thought occurs to you.

By the way, you say, you've been in there, right? You've experienced those hurricane-force winds, no?

Ranzenbach seems to shudder.

"No," he says with a soft smile. "It looks horrific. I don't know why anyone would do it."

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