'Baptized by fire': How Hurricane Andrew redefined the power of a monster hurricane
Not only did the storm cause mass destruction in Florida and Louisiana, it also prompted changes by federal and local governments that remain in place more than 30 years later.
On Aug. 24, 1992, the storm crashed ashore in southeastern Florida as a Category 5 storm with winds of 165 mph.
Hurricane Andrew is one of the storms that's permanently burned into AccuWeather Hurricane Expert Dan Kottlowski's mind. He can retrace the track, recall exactly how it hit, and remember with remarkable clarity just how quickly it intensified into a "monster" of a storm that set a new standard of damage to expect from major hurricanes.
The first named storm of the 1992 Atlantic season, Andrew had only been a tropical storm on Friday, Aug. 21, when Kottlowski was briefing one of the company's clients. But by the evening hours, the hurricane outlook computer forecast models had changed, with the latest projections taking the intensifying storm nearly due west toward southeastern Florida.
The technology available back then offered a narrower glimpse of information via the U.S. global weather forecast model compared to the plethora of models meteorologists use today to predict hurricane paths, but the track forecast was clear.
Hurricane Andrew Photo Gallery
"You know, we have to really be thinking about a pretty bad hurricane hitting [residents] in southeast Florida from the East," Kottlowski recalled telling the client.
Andrew would intensify into a hurricane the following day, rapidly growing from a Category 1 to Category 5 hurricane over the course of 36 hours as it raced toward the southeastern Florida coast. By that Monday, Kottlowski realized "that we were dealing with a monster."
In Coral Gables, Florida, Robert Molleda, now the warning coordination meteorologist for the NWS office in Miami, Florida, was working as a meteorologist intern for the office. His workday consisted of collecting data from across the area, performing radar observations, broadcasting forecasts on the NOAA weather radio and taking calls from the public.
Initially, as a young meteorologist starting out in the field, there was a fascination with the approaching storm. It had been more than 25 years since a hurricane made landfall in the state, the last being the Category 4 Hurricane Betsy in 1965 which became known as the first billion-dollar hurricane.
"But as Andrew got closer to us in the day or two before landfall and we saw how strong it was getting, my initial excitement, let's say, really turned to quite a bit of fear," Molleda said. "I was starting to realize, look, this is going to be a really bad hurricane."
At its peak over the weekend, the storm reached maximum sustained winds of 175 mph, surpassing the threshold of Category 5 strength by more than 20 mph. At the time, only four Atlantic hurricanes on record had achieved higher sustained winds.
On the morning of Aug. 23, the hurricane watch from Vero Beach, roughly 25 miles north of Port Saint Lucie on Florida's east coast, through the Florida Keys was upgraded to a warning, and a warning was issued for southwestern Florida later that afternoon.
Hurricane Andrew Map Gallery
The following day, Aug. 24, the storm made two official landfalls in Florida, carving through Elliott Key, the northernmost island of the Florida Keys, before crashing ashore on the mainland at Fender Point in Biscayne National Park around 5 a.m. with Category 5 winds of 165 mph. The nearby city of Homestead in Miami-Dade County, where more than 99% of all mobile homes were completely destroyed, was one of the hardest-hit communities. In total, Andrew made five landfalls -- twice over the Bahamas, twice over Florida, and its final landfall over Point Chevreuil, Louisiana.
At the NWS office, just north of the worst of the storm, Molleda said some people could feel the building shake as the hurricane swept through. The dome at the top of the building that housed the WSR-57 Doppler radar antenna collapsed, shattering the radar and cutting off imaging from the site.
Storm surge charged inland, reaching nearly 17 feet above sea level at Biscayne Bay, Florida, and, while it weakened slightly over land, Andrew didn't fall below Category 4 strength as it carved through the peninsula.
"Despite the terrible loss of life and destruction, the disaster could have been worse if the eye of the hurricane made landfall 20 miles to the north. That would have been devastating for downtown Miami and we could have seen a much higher death toll," Max Mayfield, who served as the director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami from 2000 to 2007, said in a news release in 2002.
He described Andrew as "a compact, relatively dry, fast-moving storm," adding that if it had "been bigger, slower and had carried more rain," Florida could have seen more destruction from flooding.
At least 65 deaths were attributed to the storm, including indirect fatalities, and thousands were displaced. More than 250,000 people were left homeless, and about 100,000 residents of south Dade County permanently left the area following the storm, according to the National Park Service.
"We learned at that point just how devastating a hurricane could be to a highly populated area," Kottlowski said.
AccuWeather Chief Content Officer Helen Swenson, who covered the hurricane early in her career, recalled how yachts had been swept up and tossed into yards, cypress trees pulled from the ground with their intricate root systems pointed toward the sky, and billboards with "twisted metal, like a hand reached down and crumpled it up."
"That particular weather event, Hurricane Andrew, certainly changed me professionally, but I think it really affected me in that I'd never seen anything like that," Swenson said. "It's a cliché when you hear people say, 'It looks like a bomb went off.' It did. It didn't look real, very surreal. It looked like a movie set. To just see Mother Nature twist and turn everything upside down is quite something. And then having to watch people piece their lives back together."
Still early in her career at the time of Andrew's landfall, Swenson worked as a line producer at WSVN-TV, a local Miami station. She spent two weeks straight in the newsroom as she coordinated coverage of the storm.
Vehicle picked and deposited on wall and other vehicle. Vehicles belonged to CNN reporter and Hurricane Center employee; employee learned of damage to vehicle watching CNN.
As the roads became impassible due to the floodwaters, food was brought in and many employees slept at the station. Swenson recalled being in the control room for 14 hours straight at one point.
"It was certainly a baptism by fire," Swenson said. "And early in my career, whatever small amount of skills I had at that time, it certainly accelerated my learning curve to figure out how to do continuous live coverage of something of that magnitude that I think is honestly even hard to put into words unless you lived through it."
Louisiana lives in shadow of Florida destruction
NOAA AVHRR satellite photo of Hurricane Andrew on Aug. 25, 1992.
While Miami captured the nation's attention through newspaper and television coverage, Hurricane Andrew had a second chapter when it made landfall in Louisiana as a Category 3 storm with 115-mph sustained winds and an 8-foot storm surge.
According to KLFY.com, 1.3 million people were evacuated and damage was estimated at $1.76 billion at the time. Seventeen people lost their lives in Louisiana. More than 241 offshore oil and gas platforms were damaged.
Over a dozen tornadoes were spawned as Andrew hit Louisiana. NOAA's publication "Storm Data" says that one deadly EF3 twister in La Place destroyed or heavily damaged 180 buildings, including the River Parishes Hospital, which had to be evacuated.
RESERVE, LA - AUGUST 29: Carlos Cabrera, Jr. holds his four-year-old son, Adrian amidst the rubble remaining of his home 28 August 1992 after Hurricane Andrew spawned a tornado 26 August that destroyed his house and killed his father. Carlos Cabrera, Sr. was the first Louisiana casualty of two reported thus far. AFP PHOTO Thomm Scott (Photo credit should read THOM SCOTT/AFP via Getty Images)
Hurricane Andrew's legacy
Before Andrew, the last major hurricane to hit Florida, Hurricane Betsy, cost $13.1 billion in today's dollars, and while it claimed 81 lives in total, only five were lost in Florida. Andrew caused $55.9 billion in damages, making it the costliest U.S. hurricane at the time, and claimed at least 44 lives in Florida alone.
Hurricane Andrew's legacy lies not just in its destruction, but in revealing that insurers, legislators, insurance regulators and even state government officials had underestimated Florida's vulnerability to hurricanes, according to the Insurance Information Institute. Following the destruction, the insurance industry reassessed its exposure to catastrophic storm damage in the aftermath of the storm.
Andrew also served as a catalyst for improvements across emergency management services from power companies to FEMA, according to Swenson.
FEMA's slow response to the destruction drew criticism and calls for reform from Congress, with some even threatening to abolish it. The agency initiated a number of reforms the following year, including leaders streamlining disaster relief and recovery options, emphasizing preparedness and mitigation and focusing on customer service, according to FEMA.
FILE - This Aug. 25, 1992, file photo shows rows of damaged houses between Homestead and Florida City, Fla. In 1992, Homestead was a sleepy agricultural town bordered by the Everglades and large farms planted with winter tomatoes and other crops. Now Homestead is full of sprawling gated developments where many residents commute north to Miami with no memory of the monster storm. (AP Photo/Mark Foley, File)
"Andrew was the first modern-day hurricane that actually impacted directly a huge metropolitan area," Kottlowski said. "So it kind of set the standard of what we would see down the road."
New technology for forecasting hurricanes had already been in the works years before Andrew, but Kottlowski said he believes that after the 1992 hurricane, research and the ability to use new technology accelerated.
"It was such a destructive storm that we actually got the government's attention," Kottlowski said. "And so the government started funding research on hurricane tracks and hurricane intensity forecast."
The tremendous damage wrought by Hurricane Andrew also exposed faulty designs and building code violations across Dade and Broward counties, hinting at cut corners during the 1980s building boom as home construction raced to keep up with a growing population.
A grand jury report highlighted deficiencies its members had noted, leading to the hiring of Jaime Gascon, director of the Boards and Code Division for Miami-Dade County as product control inspector.
"[Hurricane Andrew] prompted everyone to start looking at things -- why did this happen, how did it happen, and what could be done to prevent this from happening again?" Gascon said. "The displacement of the residents, of the tenants, of the owners of these properties is one that's kept paramount in this whole process."
MIAMI, FL - AUGUST 25: A resident (bottom right) looks out of his apartment 25 August 1992 that had its walls blown away by Hurricane Andrew. About 50,000 Dade county residents are without their homes due to Hurricane Andrew, which struck the area 24 August 1992. (Photo credit should read ROBERT SULLIVAN/AFP via Getty Images)
One of the big changes that occurred as a result of Hurricane Andrew was the introduction of impact tests for all building components that protect the building, from window shutters to roof shingles, and an upgrade to wind standards. Products had to be adjusted and redesigned to pass these new tests, contributing to higher house prices.
Today, Gascon and other code officials continue to stress the importance of training for the smooth rollout of implementing codes as well as the maintenance of the provisions put in place since Hurricane Andrew set new criteria for buildings to withstand.
"There were other earlier storms in the '60s, Hurricane Donna and the like, and they did cause devastation, but nowhere near the devastation, or the amount of affected residents that Andrew had," Gascon said.
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