Hurricane Andrew: How Far Meteorology Has Come in 20 Years

By , Meteorologist
August 26, 2012; 5:30 AM ET
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AccuWeather meteorologists reflect on forecasting 1992's Hurricane Andrew, one of the only Category 5 hurricanes to hit the United States.

It has been 20 years since one of the most destructive hurricanes to ever hit the U.S. ransacked southern Florida. The monster storm was Hurricane Andrew, a Category 5 storm.

Andrew's extreme wind hit South Miami, Homestead and Florida City the hardest.

The hurricane killed 23 people in the U.S. and three others in the Bahamas, according to NOAA. Andrew cost the U.S. $26.5 billion and left more than 250,000 people homeless.

Aerial footage taken from helicopters in the days following Hurricane Andrew's landfall in South Miami on Aug. 24, 1992, showed scenes of utter demolition. Gusts in mini-tornadoes in Andrew's eye wall were believed to be well over 200 mph, flattening homes, businesses and trees--nearly everything in its path.

"It still gives me chills when I think about it," AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Dave Samuhel said. His grandmother lived 20 miles south of Miami when Andrew struck, so the storm hit very close to home for him. "I remember we were at a Circuit City the day after, and they got the chopper in the air to get the first aerial pictures... It was destruction all the way to the horizon. My mom was crying 'cause we hadn't heard from my grandma at that point."

Samuhel's grandmother safely rode out the storm in her bathroom with a friend, and her house suffered little damage in comparison to nearby neighborhoods. Not too far away, the metro zoo sustained tremendous damage and animals were released.

"The way she described it to me was just like a constant scream, a constant high pitched scream all night long, interrupted by stuff crashing into the house, whatever was blowing by," Samuhel said. "[She] got up and she had a clear view of the Florida turnpike and she was a couple miles away. That's pretty wild."

The recovery from Andrew took years in hard-hit communities, and images of horrific damage still come to mind when Andrew is mentioned. However, there is also a positive legacy. Significant improvements in forecasting, technology and building codes since Andrew help to save lives every hurricane season.

Photo from NOAA's image archive.

Advancements in Forecasting and Technology
Hurricane Andrew was the first storm that meteorologists were able to see on Doppler Radar, which helped meteorologists to gain a better sense of the wind field around hurricanes.

"With the new Doppler radar technology, we were able to see the wind field inside Hurricane Andrew; also we were able to see the rain bands and whether the eye was getting bigger or smaller or tightening up as it was getting closer to the coast. So we knew looking at the radar that this was going to be a really nasty storm when it hit," AccuWeather Expert Senior Meteorologist Henry Margusity said.

"We saw little vortices in the eye wall. Some of the vortices hit houses; others didn't. We learned from that that there were these little tornados that revolve around the eye," Margusity added.

Doppler Radar also shows details like banding as storms are landfalling, so people can be alerted whether they are in the danger zones.

Improved coverage and technology of radars and satellites have helped meteorologists gain a much better handle of the strength and organization of hurricanes days ahead of landfall.

"What the satellite pictures have enabled us to do now is really get a feeling and a sense for what is going on out over remote portions of the ocean," Expert Senior Meteorologist Joe Sobel explained.

Floater satellite images show an up-close view of tracks along with storms to give detailed information essential to forecasting their intensity and path.

Improvements in Building Codes, Preparation and Awareness
Building codes and preparation were much different in Florida when Andrew struck in 1992.

One of the biggest problems was that roofs were not tied down by hurricane clips, and they flew right off with extreme wind, leaving walls without support and entire structures vulnerable.

Since Andrew struck, building codes have changed drastically. The improvements include better roofing materials, hurricane clips, sturdier reinforcements for doors and windows and ensuring that all loads are directed onto the foundations of homes.

According to the Institute for Business and Home Safety, high wind standards were adopted and enforced in coastal communities of Florida in 1995. Further improvements were made when the Florida Building Code 2001 was put in place statewide in 2002.

The 2004 Atlantic Hurricane Season was considered a test for newer building standards. Five named storms made landfall in Florida in 2004, including three major hurricanes. Hurricane Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne as well as Tropical Storm Bonnie all slammed into the Sunshine State.

In years following the parade of storms in 2004, even more building standards were updated.

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