Forecasters and the public alike had no time to waste 30 years ago this month as they confronted one of the fiercest U.S. hurricane landfalls on record.
A decade later, Andrew — originally rated a Category 4 — was upgraded to Category 5 status, with peak sustained winds estimated at 165 mph.
Andrew took 65 lives and cost $27 billion (1992 USD), making it the most expensive hurricane in U.S. history until it was eclipsed by Katrina in 2005. Andrew’s toll in Florida — including more than 60,000 homes destroyed and an additional 100,000 damaged — led to major changes in how structures are built and insured. Thousands of residents were terror-stricken as their homes disintegrated in darkness. The storm also inflicted heavy damage in the Bahamas and along the central Louisiana coast.
“Hurricane Andrew survivors were psychologically scarred for life,” said John Morales, a broadcast meteorologist at Miami’s WTVJ. Morales’s career started just a year before Andrew at WLTV as the nation’s first meteorologist on Spanish-language television.
If Andrew arrived today, it would be captured by greatly improved forecasting tools and a transformed communications landscape. And it would strike a region where structures are more storm-hardened but also more numerous.
What’s different now
A vastly expanded range of forecast models. The National Hurricane Center (NHC) tracked Andrew with just one global dynamical model and another that blended statistics and dynamics. Other models leaned heavily on climatology, persistence and advection (moving hurricanes in the broad steering flow).
At the time, models extended out five days at best, whereas major models now extend 10 days or more with far sharper resolution.
“Thirty years ago, model guidance was sparse and crude compared to today’s glut of high-resolution global and regional models and their ensembles,” said Brian McNoldy, senior research associate at the University of Miami and hurricane expert for Capital Weather Gang.
Dramatic improvement in official forecasts. NHC forecasts extended out only three days in 1992, and they were just “skinny lines” with locations and intensities.
As late as Friday evening, most model guidance still had Andrew well offshore on Monday evening. In his book “Hurricane Watch,” Bob Sheets, NHC’s director in 1992, recalls the message relayed to emergency managers and the public that night: They should keep an eye out, but “Andrew is unlikely to affect the state before at least Monday.”
Since the days of Andrew, track forecasts have improved in spectacular fashion, in both trajectory and “along-track” speed errors.
“There is roughly the same average error in three-day track forecasts now as there was in a one-day forecast then,” McNoldy said.
Other innovations since Andrew include the forecast cone, which debuted in 2002, and the extension of public forecasts to five days in 2003. It’s easy to imagine a forecast cone reaching parts of South Florida up to four or five days before Andrew struck.
Still, a storm like Andrew wouldn’t be the easiest to predict. Just four days before hitting Florida, Andrew was barely surviving as a tropical storm northeast of Puerto Rico. In an internal forecast discussion that day, NHC forecaster Hal Gerrish concluded that “some strengthening is possible if Andrew survives through the day.”
Small tropical cyclones can both intensify and weaken quickly. That only adds to the difficulty of forecasting a storm like Andrew, especially its breakneck intensification.
“Andrew would still be a challenging storm in 2022,” said Eric Blake, acting branch chief of NHC’s Hurricane Specialist Unit, in an email. “Our intensity forecasts would be better, but this is a hard forecast with a small tropical cyclone, so the forecasts would likely have higher errors than our five-year averages.”
On the plus side, radars, satellites and dropsondes from reconnaissance flights can now monitor storms far more completely. Some of that data makes it into today’s much-improved dynamical models.
Stronger building codes and enforcement. Andrew’s impact was “eye-opening” for the insurance industry, according to Ian Giammanco, lead research meteorologist for the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS).
“It was thought Florida had a strong code,” said Giammanco in an email. However, it became clear post-Andrew that the code had been poorly enforced. Moreover, it didn’t reflect emerging knowledge from wind engineers.
Today, shutters and impact-resistant glass are mandated, helping to keep winds and debris from getting a toehold inside a structure. In regions especially prone to wind-borne debris, roof decks now must be sealed, helping to keep water out even if the overtopping roof cover fails. Florida now leads the nation in hurricane-related building codes and enforcement, according to the IBHS.
“If Andrew were to occur today, we would absolutely see a reduction in the amount and severity of structural damage to homes and businesses,” Giammanco said.
What worries the experts
In other ways, though, southeast Florida may be even more vulnerable to a major hurricane.
Higher sea level. Most of Andrew’s damage was produced by its small core of extreme winds. Larger hurricanes are more prone to generate high storm surge and torrential rainfall, threats influenced by human-produced climate change.
Even a small increment of sea level rise atop a large surge can intensify flood damage.
“With a full six inches of sea level rise since the mid-1990s, an Andrew-like 17-foot storm surge would be able to penetrate further inland and damage more communities,” Morales said.
“There is far more wealth vulnerable to storm surge or rising water,” said Bryan Norcross, a hurricane specialist at Fox Weather who gained widespread acclaim for his 23 hours of coverage at Miami’s WTVJ during the height of Andrew.
A fragmented communications environment. Cellphones and home computers make it easier than ever to access reliable updates from NHC and other trusted sources. It is also easy for inaccurate or misleading information from “social mediarologists” to catch fire.
“I think it’s much more difficult to get a message to people today, to get them to understand what you are saying and what you want them to take away,” Norcross said.
Norcross also warns that a major cell outage could plunge people into a bigger information hole than in 1992. At that time, battery-operated TVs and/or radios were in common use, and hard-wired landline telephones were ubiquitous.
More people at risk. The population of Miami-Dade County has vaulted from around 2 million to 2.7 million since Andrew. Croplands and agricultural towns south of Miami have been engulfed by urban sprawl.
Another point of concern: There have been no major hurricane landfalls on the southeast Florida coast since Andrew. The last one before that was Betsy, in 1965. Hurricane Irma, which toppled Andrew as Florida’s costliest hurricane in 2017, sideswiped the Miami area on its southwest-to-northeast track.
“There is an entire generation of South Floridians who have never experienced major hurricane conditions,” Morales said. “There are also thousands of transplants — folks who have zero experience in dealing with tropical cyclone emergencies.
“Another Andrew in South Florida would lead to great economic loss and potential fatalities, as well as a region left reeling in a multiyear recovery effort.”
The Atlantic hurricane season
The latest: The 2022 season started out slow, but has rapidly intensified this fall with conditions prime for storms. Fiona brought severe flooding to Puerto Rico before making landfall in Canada, and now we’re tracking Hurricane Ian as it heads for Florida. For the seventh year in a row, hurricane officials expect an above-average season of hurricane activity.
Tips for preparing: We rounded up seven safety tips to help you get ready for hurricanes. Here’s some other guidance about keeping your phone charged and useful in dangerous weather, and what to know about flood insurance.
Understanding climate change: It’s not just you — hurricanes and tropical storms have hit the U.S. more frequently in recent years. And last summer alone, nearly 1 in 3 Americans experienced a weather disaster. Read more about how climate change is fueling severe weather events.