Hurricane Andrew hit 25 years ago and joined ranks of historic U.S. hurricanes


Hurricane Andrew struck Miami-Dade County 25 years ago on Aug. 24, 1992, permanently changing the face of South Florida.

Nearly 300 hurricanes have hit the continental United States since 1851, and most of these have been forgotten.

By any standard,Hurricane Andrew was historic. It was the third-strongest hurricane to make landfall in the United States since reliable records had been kept, with top wind speeds of 165 miles per hour.Andrew shocked a generation that had never experienced such a hurricane, engendering a deep respect for the power of these huge rotating storms.

Brian McNoldy, senior research associate at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, ranks Andrew with such infamous storms as the Galveston Hurricane of 1900, which was the deadliest storm in U.S. history; the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, which destroyed the railroad through the Florida Keys; the Okeechobee Hurricane of 1928, which drowned thousands around the lake; and Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans.

“Certainly there’s more to significance than just how strong they are,” he said. “Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was certainly not among the most intense in terms of wind speed. It was a Category 3. But that one became infamous because the water-retention mechanisms that were in place didn’t hold up. Galveston too, was deadliest but nowhere near strongest. Hurricane Andrew is way up there. Andrew was one of the very few that ever hit the United States as a Category 5 hurricane.”

“It was one of the strongest hurricanes to ever hit the U.S., and it hit a high-profile place. It only really strengthened to Category 4 or 5 level in 24 or 36 hours. Prior to that, it looked like a hurricane coming, but not an end-of-the-world hurricane.”

Andrew made landfall near Elliot Key, the northernmost of the Florida Keys, at 5 a.m. Aug. 24 and buzzed across southern Miami-Dade County. When the winds abated, traumatized survivors emerged to a wasteland of flattened houses.

The storm destroyed 28,000 homes. It forced insurance companies to pay more than $15.5 billion in claims. It accounted for 15 direct deaths, a toll many considered light, considering the vast area of destruction. Another 25 were counted as indirect deaths, and the Miami Herald reported another 43 deaths that could be linked to the storm, a figure now used by the National Hurricane Center.

Bill Johnson, Palm Beach County’s emergency management director, recalls hiding in a closet in in the Country Walk section of south Miami-Dade as windows crashed and Andrew raged.

“We had probably been there for several hours, only hearing the glass and the roar of the winds,” he says in a video documentary released Wednesday by the National Weather Service in Miami. “And then water started to come up into the carpet in the closet. Water started to come up underneath the baseboard. The windows were so badly destroyed and the storm was so intense that it was starting to blow water and sand underneath your baseboards.”

Then a young father, he said his family moved from “doubt to shock and sadness” as the rain and wind escalated.

“We underestimated — I underestimated — the significance of a hurricane and how it can alter your life,” he said. “We were not prepared. We were underprepared. We were underinformed. We did not understand the scope of what a hurricane could do.”

The destruction spurred a population shift to Broward and Palm Beach counties. Southwestern Broward County, in particular, boomed, filling up with houses, schools and strip malls — and traffic. A stretch of Florida’s Turnpike from Broward into Miami-Dade was widened. Even now, the current Interstate 75 upgrade has some roots in Andrew, as the road is expanded to accommodate more residents.

Along with the construction boom came an improvement in building standards. Andrew’s devastation had exposed shoddy construction on a grand scale, with federal emergency officials finding substandard designs and misused building materials in many of the wrecked homes.

Broward and Miami-Dade counties adopted stricter construction standards, and the first state building code went into effect.

Tere Estorino Florin, spokeswoman for the Miami-Dade County Department of Regulatory and Economic Resources, said the improved building standards mean that residents and visitors are better able to weather storms in their homes, provided they don’t live in an evacuation zone. And with more people sheltering in their homes comes less gridlock in an evacuation.

“The stricter measures in the code help keep residents and visitors safe and help prevent loss of life and property,” Florin said.

Hurricane Andrew struck during an inactive hurricane season and came after years of below-average hurricane activity, a time in which many people stopped taking the storms seriously, ignoring the rare evacuation orders and choosing to hold hurricane parties instead. But Andrew’s shocking gain in power and its catastrophic impact changed all that.

Richard Olson, director of the International Hurricane Research Center at Florida International University, said that for all its devastation, Andrew played a role in making the area stronger for the next hurricanes.

“You have to look at vulnerability reduction due to an improved building code and much closer attention to enforcement,” he said. “And for me, the culture change in the state of Florida where people now respect hurricanes.”

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