Twenty years ago, one of the strongest hurricanes ever to hit the U.S. changed the face of South Florida.
Hurricane Andrew wiped out communities south of Miami, killing 15 people when it struck in 1992. Dozens more died from injuries stemming from the storm and its aftermath.
Adjusted for inflation, the 1992 storm was, after Katrina, the second costliest storm in U.S. history. It also changed how we forecast and respond to hurricanes.
Andrew hit in a hurricane season that started out uncharacteristically quiet. Max Mayfield, a former forecaster at the National Hurricane Center, remembers receiving calls through July and August from reporters asking where the storms were.
A Slow Start To An Intense Storm
When Andrew formed in the Atlantic in mid-August, it was a weak storm that many thought would fall apart. "It really didn't become a hurricane until the 22nd, which is only two days before it struck South Florida on the 24th," Mayfield says. "So, we really didn't forecast it to become a major hurricane until Saturday."
Andrew hit the Bahamas as a Category 5 hurricane and barreled toward South Florida. Most residents had less than a day to prepare their homes and to evacuate coastal areas.
Early on the morning of Aug. 24, Andrew slammed into the Florida coast, just south of Miami. On WTVJ-TV, meteorologist Bryan Norcross stayed on the air as Andrew pounded the area, telling residents to retreat to safe rooms and to protect themselves under mattresses.
The storm's wind speeds were later estimated at more than 160 miles per hour; they broke the gauges used to collect such data. Andrew was a small and fast-moving hurricane, tiny compared to slow giants like the more recent storms Katrina and Rita. But along with Hurricane Camille in 1969 and the 1935 Labor Day hurricane, Andrew was only the third Category 5 hurricane to make landfall in the continental U.S. since records were first kept.
'Like A Bomb Had Gone Off'
Doug Austin rode out the story with his wife, in-laws and 1-year-old son in southwest Miami-Dade County.
"I think it was around a quarter till 5 when a plank from my neighbor's fence came crashing through my bedroom window," he says.
With glass flying everywhere, they packed themselves into a hallway closet, Austin says. But then his father-in-law made the mistake of opening the front door.
"When the wind caught the front door," he says, "it almost blew it off the hinges. But at that time, more wind came inside my house, thus knocking down a majority of the interior walls."
Austin's home, like nearly all in South Florida, is made of concrete block. The exterior walls were left standing. But his roof was gone, and his home was devastated. After the storm, he saw most of his neighbors had suffered similar damage.
"Cars were damaged from roof debris,' he says. "It looked like a bomb had gone off, it really did."
Construction Flaws Exposed
As people began to assess the damage, it turned out that the amount of devastation brought by Hurricane Andrew differed greatly from neighborhood to neighborhood.
The houses in Austin's neighborhood were just a few years old; nearly all suffered severe damage. But some other neighborhoods saw little more than downed trees and missing shingles. The difference was in how they were built.
"Andrew was mostly a wind issue, and actually a wakeup call," says Ricardo Alvarez, a researcher who specializes in hurricane protection.
South Florida already had a good building code. Alvarez says investigators found much of the damage was caused by faulty construction. Also, the county had allowed builders to use cost-saving shortcuts like using weaker strand board instead of plywood and staples instead of roofing nails.
"We didn't find out until Andrew that staples had no capacity to hold that plywood or strand board to the structure," Alvarez says. "So the roofs were gone then. And as a roof goes, that box that protects you has a huge opening. And through that comes wind, rain, debris."
After the storm, officials banned staples and strand board. Alvarez helped develop a nail that has since become standard for all roofing in South Florida. In addition, South Florida's building code now requires homes to have storm shutters or impact-resistant glass. Thanks to Hurricane Andrew, it's the strongest building code in the nation.
Requirements were also changed for businesses and institutions. At Miami's Mercy Hospital, where a 12-foot storm surge inundated the hospital, facilities supervisor Jeff Madonia remembers, "We had a foot and a half of water in the ground floor, fish swimming down the hallway."
Mercy Hospital, like many of Miami's businesses and institutions, is built overlooking Biscayne Bay. Madonia says that during the storm, a 50-foot cargo ship came ashore and grounded in the hospital's parking lot.
After Andrew, the hospital spent millions renovating its buildings, strengthening them against future hurricanes. On the ground floor, the hospital installed heavy-duty metal doors with rubber gaskets to seal off sensitive areas from future storm surges.
The work was both ordered and largely paid for by the federal government. After Andrew, federal emergency managers began working for the first time to ensure public buildings would be rebuilt to withstand future disasters.
New Leaps In Forecasting
Since Andrew, the government has learned a lot about how to prepare and respond to hurricanes. It has also improved its ability to predict the storms' paths.
When Bob Sheets, then-director of the National Hurricane Center, gave updates on Andrew, he had far fewer tools than exist today. Forecasters relied on observations from a single satellite, and wind speed measurements by aircraft flying through the storm at 10,000 feet.
Today, there are many more satellites, plus devices that are dropped from airplanes to take readings from within a hurricane's core. They provide much more data for the computer models that forecast hurricane tracks.
"The models themselves have gotten much more detailed in what they can see, what they can represent, as computers have gotten faster and faster," says James Franklin of the NHC.
As models improved a decade after Andrew, the NHC introduced an important new graphic for the public: the cone of uncertainty. It's gotten more accurate over the years; it now reliably shows what coastal areas might be affected by a hurricane, five days out.
An area where the NHC has made less progress is in its ability to forecast intensity — to foresee the kind of rapid strengthening Andrew went through in 1992. That's a tougher challenge, but one meteorologists are working on.
Amid Gains, Uncertainty
Mayfield says that despite all the improvements in forecasting, preparing and responding to hurricanes, there's still something that bothers him about Andrew.
For Miami, it wasn't the big one.
"That core of the hurricane in Andrew did not go over Miami Beach, the city of Miami, the port of Miami, Miami International Airport," he says. "It was well south of there. If that track had been shifted 15 or 20 miles to the north, as bad as things were, it could have been much, much, much worse."
As a small Category 5 hurricane, Andrew was not the worst storm ever to hit South Florida. A 1926 hurricane devastated Miami. It was a Category 4 system, but it inundated the area with a 15-foot storm surge. If Miami took a similar direct hit today, researchers say, the impact would be far worse than Andrew, with triple the costs.
Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.