The Amazing Andrew
The second most costly natural disaster in U.S. history took place on the morning of August 24, 1992, when Hurricane Andrew plowed a 25-mile-wide path of destruction through southern Florida, just south of downtown Miami. Even the National Weather Service lost its radar when the storm blew the installation off the roof of the government facility in Coral Gables. And Weather Service personnel were uncertain of the fate of their own homes and families—many of their homes were destroyed. The storm just rolled over everything in its path.
Overall, the 1992 hurricane season had been very quiet. By late August, the first hurricane of the season was still not in sight. On Friday, August 21, a suspicious system appeared east of the Bahamas, but forecasters at the National Hurricane Center were not especially impressed. Reporters were told that the threat was minimal. The circulation was surprisingly small. But it began to wind up rapidly on Saturday, August 22, and, at the same time, it was on a steady westward course of more than 20 mph. That speed is practically unheard of in the tropics where hurricanes normally move at half that speed or less. But a high-pressure system north of Andrew was forcing the storm to take on a rapid and straight track—right at Miami. It would not veer and, on Sunday, the hurricane reached powerful proportions with winds of more than 150 mph.
There are five categories of hurricane intensity. A storm of Category 3 intensity (highest wind is 130 to 135 mph) is more than enough to cause destruction and historic damage.
I was getting ready for my evening weathercast that Sunday night and took note of the observation from Miami. It certainly didn't seem like hurricane weather. The wind was out of the northeast, but relatively gentle, and skies were partly cloudy. That was the classic calm before the storm. Yet, by daybreak Monday, most of the damage had already been done, and southern Dade County was unrecognizable. The storm rapidly reached its peak just after midnight on Sunday.
Damage reached catastrophic levels. Estimates ranged up to 40 billion dollars. Because of the claims, eleven insurance companies became insolvent. One hundred and twenty-six thousand homes were damaged or destroyed, 353,000 people were displaced, and 100,000 people never returned to Dade County. "Andrew" was a steamroller that had carved out a narrow zone of total destruction.
The storm bordered on Category 5 with wind gusts to 200 mph as it approached Miami. It became one of the great disasters of the twentieth century and sounded a warning signal for the next.