Thursday marks the 25-year anniversary of Andrew (Aug. 24, 1992), the devastating Category 5 hurricane that claimed 65 lives and destroyed more than 25,000 homes in South Florida.
A storm this intense hasn’t hit U.S. soil since that dreadful August day, and only Katrina in 2005 left behind a worse economic toll.
Andrew’s impact on South Florida could have even been more painful were it not for the remarkable efforts of Bryan Norcross, then chief meteorologist at WTVJ, Miami’s NBC affiliate. He had spent years planning for such a storm and, when it hit, he stayed on the air for 23 straight hours, expertly guiding tens of thousands of South Floridians through its wrath from start to finish.
“He was the human connection for Miamians huddling in hallways and watching the news,” the Miami Herald said.
His delivery was praised as steady and reassuring. Yet, when needed, he emphatically conveyed lifesaving information.
“Get to that interior closet, get a mattress over your head, get your family in there, and just wait this thing out,” he said at the storm’s height.
Norcross, now senior hurricane specialist at the Weather Channel, has self-published a book recalling his experiences covering the storm, “My Hurricane Andrew Story.” ($14.99, Bryan Norcross Corp.).
The book has a specific purpose, Norcross said, to make it known “that the worst does happen.” And it is for this very reason, he stressed, storm preparation is so important.
But since Andrew, Norcross fears that Florida has become more vulnerable to hurricanes and is not “remotely” ready. The state’s population has ballooned, putting more people and property in harm’s way. Meanwhile, since 2005, not a single major hurricane, classified Category 3 or higher (on the 1-5 Saffir-Simpson intensity scale), has hit the state. Many Floridians have forgotten what a severe hurricane is like or have never experienced one.
One shudders to think how damaging the next major hurricane or series of major hurricanes to hit South Florida may be.
We conducted an interview with Norcross, edited for length, in which he discusses what he learned from Andrew, Florida’s increasing vulnerability to hurricanes, and how it can be better prepared for what the future might hold.
Capital Weather Gang: Looking back, what about your Andrew coverage are you most proud of?
Norcross: The coverage that we provided before and during Andrew was only possible because the TV station committed to a program of backing up critical technical systems and producing in-depth specials looking at the hurricane problem.
We had been working on our coverage plan for two-and-a-half years, and I had been thinking about it for some years before that. I’m proud of the fact that my plan worked and am especially grateful to the management at WTVJ who supported it and made it a reality.
With the benefit of hindsight, is there anything you would’ve changed about how you covered the storm?
I wish I had pushed for more information from Dade County Emergency Management in the 12 hours before landfall. We had reporters all over town, and the amount of information was at times overwhelming, but, in general, we did not have an overview of how the evacuation was going, the status of the highways, reports from police and hospitals, and other information that would normally come from emergency management.
There are other things that I wish had happened differently. I didn’t talk enough about Homestead, Florida City, Cutler Ridge and other areas south of the immediate Miami suburbs. The radar-mapping technology didn’t permit close-up views, however, which limited my ability to clearly judge the storm’s trajectory until very close to landfall.
Much has made about the absence of major hurricanes in Florida and other hurricane-prone areas since 2005, especially when you consider what’s possible. As an example, nine Category 4-5 hurricanes hit South Florida in a 22-year stretch early in the 20th century. Is South Florida — whose population and assets have grown enormously — ready for a major hurricane or, worse, a series of them?
South Florida is not remotely prepared for a Category 3 or higher hurricane. In 2005, Hurricane Wilma was a Category 1 in Miami-Dade County and Category 2 in pockets of Broward and Palm Beach Counties. It ended up being the third most expensive hurricane in the history of hurricanes. The government was barely able to stabilize the situation simply due to the large number of people who were really hurting.
Hurricane Andrew revealed loopholes in the building code and exposed the lax enforcement that had been going on for many years. The revised building and inspection standards that have been in effect in metro Miami-Fort Lauderdale for more than 20 years are extremely rigid — the strongest by far on the hurricane coast. But there are so many more people near the water, in so many more, taller buildings, with so much more wealth that any future hurricane is guaranteed to be much more difficult to manage and recover from than storms of the past.
[Even] if you could get 90 percent of the people to prepare to take total care of themselves for a week or more after a storm, there would still be hundreds of thousands of people needing immediate aid — including many in the most vulnerable populations — in a metropolitan area as large and complex as southeast Florida. And you could never get anywhere close to 90 percent of the population to fully prepare.
What, in your mind, is the worst-case scenario for a South Florida hurricane?
There are two kind of worst-case scenarios for Greater Miami-Fort Lauderdale. One is Hurricane Andrew coming ashore 10 to 12 miles farther north so that the destruction corridor includes South Beach, the Port of Miami, the banking district, the Miami International Airport, and the Coral Gables and Doral business districts. Besides the unimaginable destruction and widespread homelessness, it would be dagger to the economic heart of the region. Tourism and business would be incapacitated for an indeterminate length of time. With no jobs and housing, people would have to leave. It is impossible to imagine how the region would resurrect itself and how long it would take.
The other worst-case scenario is exactly the Great Miami Hurricane of 1926. Because of its size — covering all of Miami-Dade and Broward Counties — that storm would incapacitate the entire region of nearly 5 million people. The estimate is that damage would approach $200 billion.
In addition, there is a little-mentioned threat from a storm that generates a storm surge in the range of 10 feet along the oceanfront. Tens or hundreds of thousands of people would likely be stranded and immobile in their buildings after the storm. People staying in high-rise buildings would be safe, if they rode out the storm in a lower-level hallway. But the grounds and streets around the buildings within range of the storm surge would be deep in sand and debris — as happened in 1926. So people will be stuck in buildings with no power, no water, likely little or no communications, and no way to get out or get people in with supplies and aid for an extended time after the storm.
Your book talks a lot about this need to be ready and to plan for the worst-case scenarios. But we are often a society that tends to only respond to immediate threats, not hypotheticals. If you have only a minute to convince decision-makers and every day people why preparation and upfront investment matters so much, what do you say?
If decision-makers don’t invest in incentivized mitigation, they are going to pay anyway, and pay big. Witness $50-plus billion checks that Congress wrote after Katrina and Sandy. Inland states say they don’t want to subsidize people living near the water, but they are doing it anyway in the form of recovery money. Add to that, mitigation dollars lower the cost of every storm that comes along, while recovery dollars only fund damage from one big event, and it’s clear that a national mitigation strategy is the more cost-effective move.
In the book, you also talk about today’s communication challenges and the fragmented messages resulting from so many sources of information. What role does the government have in message development, and how can the broader weather community help bring harmony in these critical communication situations?
The only entity in our society with the credibility to produce coherent messages that would rise above the communications noise during a hurricane’s landfall is the National Hurricane Center. Their traditional approach has been to provide the raw elements and let communicators aggregate the facts into a message for the public. That worked when the amount of information to dispense was relatively limited and the communications channels were few.
My recommendation is that the Hurricane Center, in conjunction with National Weather Service, reformulate the so-called public advisory so that it is an aggregated message that includes what’s currently known about the storm, the forecast, key graphics, the forecaster’s confidence, and other elements that are required to convey the best information that modern science can provide.