A high-rise should be safe in a hurricane — after all, they're engineered, right?
Maybe. But the proposition hasn't been widely tested — there's not a lot of historical experience of strong hurricanes hitting cities full of high-rise buildings.
One teachable moment, however, happened ten years ago when Hurricane Wilma crossed Florida, in October of 2005, bringing winds between 60 and 100 mph to the Miami area. (This animated GIF image shows the hurricane's path.) A report on Miami public radio station WLRN (see: "Windows Lost to Wilma," by Wilson Sayre) looks back at the Wilma experience observed by townsfolk the day after Wilma passed through: "Above ground, the glistening buildings were pockmarked by missing glass. Buildings like the Greenburg Traurig and Espirito Santo buildings were missing dozens and dozens of windows."
Local man Santi Gabino says the scene "literally looked like a bomb had gone off ... I mean you could literally peer into people’s offices. You had paper raining down on the streets below. I mean it was shocking because no one expected that that was supposed to happen.”
As the Washington Post noted in 2013, weather officials don't recommend sheltering in a high-rise building above the tenth floor because hurricane winds are stronger at higher elevations (see: "Sandy spared New York’s skyscrapers, but high-rises carry high risk during hurricanes," by Jack Williams). "All in all, an upper floor in a high-rise is no place to be in a hurricane," concludes the Post. (The video below shows Wilma as viewed from an upper-story Miami window).
After Wilma, some Miami building owners were allowed to replace broken windows with the same kind of glass that had failed in the storm, WLRN reports. But for local developer Alan Ojeda, that's not good enough. Ojeda had a glass-clad office building in the early planning stages when Wilma struck. "I said, ‘what can we learn from this?’ ” said Ojeda to WLRN. “So, what we learned was that the [building] code was and is wrong.” While the Florida code only requires impact glazing within 30 feet of the ground, Ojeda decided to apply impact glass to his whole office tower at 1450 Brickell in Miami.
So far, Ojeda's glass hasn't faced a real-world test — no similar hurricane has hit the city since Wilma. But as John Morales, chief meteorologist for WTVJ NBC6, commented: “I think everybody needs to be aware that Wilma was nothing.”