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Posted at 02:00 PM ET, 08/24/2012

Andrew Anniversary Part II: Andrew’s winds hit National Hurricane Center

This is part 2 of a two-part series looking back at Hurricane Andrew 20 years ago. Part 1 was published yesterday and can be found here.

After Andrew became a hurricane Saturday morning, Aug. 22, the clockwise winds around an area of high pressure to the north took control and kept the hurricane on an almost steady due west course, aiming for southern Dade County, Fla.


Radar image of Hurricane Andrew as it came ashore southeast of the NHC (marked with a plus-sign). (National Weather Service)

At 8 a.m. Sunday, Aug. 23, the Hurricane Center issued a hurricane warning for Florida’s East Coast from Vero Beach south across the Keys; a 300-mile stretch with Andrew expected to come ashore in Dade County, but south of the city of Miami. By 11 a.m. Andrew’s sustained winds were up to 135 mph.

At 5 p.m. Andrew was over Eleuthera in the Bahamas. Its spiral bands were beginning to show up on the old-but-reliable weather radar whose antenna was on the roof of the 12-story building on Dixie Highway in Coral Gables that housed the Hurricane Center on the sixth floor.

Hurricane Center Director Bob Sheets recognized the importance of giving people reliable information about hurricanes via the news media. He gave interview after interview to radio and television stations as Andrew neared Florida and then threatened New Orleans. For the interviews, he sat at a desk with the forecasters working behind him. He also gave brief updates for all each hour.

All of Sunday afternoon and into the evening the monitor next to where Sheets sat was running a loop of Andrew’s spiral bands swirling as the storm approached. Andrew seemed to be lunging toward the coast, retreating and lunging again.

While Andrew was holding a steady course for them and their homes, the center’s forecasters had to start thinking about New Orleans as well as Florida—the computer models were indicating that Andrew could smash the Crescent City two days after wrecking southern Dade County.

A little after 4 a.m. Monday the wind ripped apart communications satellite dishes at the rear of the building. As planned, the center switched to receiving satellite images from Washington, D.C. on a dedicated underground line.

The wind gusts were growing stronger and stronger as someone read out the wind speeds from the rooftop anemometer:

4:28 a.m.: 134 miles per hour

4:30 a.m.: 126 miles per hour

4:33 a.m.: 147 miles per hour

Then, a sudden thud shook the building. No one said a word for a few seconds. “What’s happening?” The radar stopped working; the forecasters knew the thud must have been the one-ton radar antenna atop a 10-foot-high machinery room on the roof falling onto the roof.

4:49 a.m.: 152 miles per hour

4:52 a.m.: 164 miles per hour.

The wind dial on a wall was creeping up as the noise increased. Suddenly the speeds on the dial began rapidly decreasing. Those watching knew the anemometer must have broken because the noise of the wind whipping around the building continued increasing.

Winds at the Center were not Andrew’s strongest. The eye was then about 18 miles south of the center and the northern edge of the eye wall, with the strongest winds, was about four miles to the south. As those at the Center watched the wind dial, Andrew was ripping apart homes and other buildings only a few miles away.

When dawn arrived and the winds had died down a few people ventured outside to see a car in the parking lot on the building’s south side sitting upright with its with its front wheels on the hoods of two other cars and its back wheels on the brick wall around the lot.


The scene found in the NHC parking lot as Andrew's winds died down. (Jack Williams)

The car on top of the pile had been in the east parking lot, as was one of the other cars. None of the cars was seriously dented. Winds swirling around the building had shoved at least two of the cars 100 feet and then lifted one to sit on top of the other two.

By noon Andrew had finished with Southeastern Florida but the Center’s forecasters couldn’t take much time to rest.

At 5 p.m. Monday the Center issued hurricane warnings for the northern Gulf of Mexico Coast from Pascagoula, Miss., west to Vermilion Bay, La., which includes New Orleans. In the end, Andrew came ashore again, as a minimal Category 3 hurricane near Morgan City, La., a relatively unpopulated part of the state. It was 100 miles from New Orleans. But the storm, while still strong, was so small that hurricane force winds didn’t reach the city.

Jack Williams covered Hurricane Andrew from the National Hurricane Center in Miami for “USA TODAY” from early Sunday afternoon, Aug. 23, 1992 until after Andrew hit Louisiana the morning of Aug. 26. His account is based on the chapter about Andrew in “Hurricane Watch: Forecasting the Deadliest Storms on Earth” by Dr. Bob Sheets and Jack Williams, published in 2001 by Vintage Books.

By Jack Williams  |  02:00 PM ET, 08/24/2012

Categories:  Latest, Tropical Weather

 
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