A decade later, Andrew – originally rated a Category 4″ — was upgraded to Category 5 status, with peak sustained winds estimated at 165 mph.
Andrew killed 65 people and cost $27 billion (1992 USD), making it the costliest hurricane in US history until eclipsed by Katrina in 2005. Andrew’s tolls in Florida — including more than 60,000 homes destroyed and another 100,000 damaged — sparked major changes in the way structures are built and insured. Thousands of residents were shocked as their homes crumbled into darkness. The storm also caused heavy damage in the Bahamas and along the central Louisiana coast.
“Survivors of Hurricane Andrew were psychologically scarred for life,” said John Morales, a broadcast meteorologist at WTVJ in Miami. Morales’ career began just a year before Andrew at WLTV as the country’s first meteorologist on Spanish-language television.
If Andrew arrived today, it would be captured by vastly improved forecasting tools and a transformed communications landscape. And it would hit a region where structures are more stormy but also more numerous.
A huge range of forecasting models. The National Hurricane Center (NHC) tracked Andrew with just one global dynamic model and another that mixed statistics and dynamics. Other models relied heavily on climatology, persistence, and advection (moving hurricanes in the broad control current).
Back then, models extended five days at best, while large models now extend 10 days or more with much sharper resolution.
“Thirty years ago, model guidance was sparse and crude compared to the current plethora 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 lasted just three days in 1992, and they were just “lean lines” of locations and intensities.
Even Friday night, most of the model guidance had Andrew well offshore on Monday night. In his book ‘Hurricane Watch’ Bob Sheets, director of NHC in 1992, recalls the message that was passed to emergency managers and the public that night: they should keep an eye on things, but ‘It is unlikely that Andrew will for at least Monday. ”
Since the days of Andrew, track predictions have improved spectacularly, both in track and “trackside” speed errors.
“There’s about the same average error in three-day track forecasts now as there was in a one-day forecast,” McNoldy said.
Other innovations since Andrew include the prediction cone, which debuted in 2002, and the expansion of public predictions to five days in 2003. It’s easy to imagine a prediction 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 reaching Florida, Andrew barely survived as a tropical storm northeast of Puerto Rico. In an internal forecasting discussion that day, NHC forecaster Hal Gerrish concluded that “some reinforcement is possible if Andrew survives the day.”
Small tropical cyclones can both quickly intensify and weaken. That just makes it harder to predict a storm like Andrew, especially its breakneck intensification.
“Andrew would still be a challenging storm in 2022,” Eric Blake, acting branch chief of NHC’s Hurricane Specialist Unit, said in an email. “Our intensity predictions would be better, but this is a hard prediction with a small tropical cyclone, so the predictions would likely have higher errors than our five-year averages.”
On the positive side, radars, satellites and drop sondes from reconnaissance flights can now track storms much more fully. Some of that data ends up in today’s vastly improved dynamic models.
Stronger building codes and enforcement. According to Ian Giammanco, chief research meteorologist for the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS), Andrew’s impact was “an eye-opener” for the insurance industry.
“Florida was thought to have a strong code,” Giammanco said in an email. However, it became apparent after Andrew that the code had been poorly enforced. In addition, it did not reflect the emerging knowledge of wind engineers.
Nowadays, shutters and impact-resistant glass are mandatory, so that wind and debris do not get a hold in a structure. In regions particularly prone to windblown debris, roof decks now need to be sealed so that water stays out even if the overflowing roofing material fails. Florida now leads the nation in hurricane-related building regulations and enforcement, according to IBHS.
“If Andrew were to act today, we would definitely see a reduction in the amount and severity of structural damage to homes and businesses,” Giammanco said.
In other ways, however, Southeast Florida could be even more vulnerable to a major hurricane.
Higher sea level. Most of the damage to Andrew was caused by his small core from extreme winds. Larger hurricanes are more prone to generating high storm surges and torrential rains, threats impacted by human-induced climate change.
Even a small increase in sea level rise on top of a large wave can increase flood damage.
“With a sea level rise of 15 centimeters since the mid-1990s, a storm surge more than five meters deep could penetrate inland and damage more communities,” Morales said.
“There’s a lot more wealth that’s vulnerable to storm surge or rising water,” said Bryan Norcross, a hurricane specialist at Fox Weather, who received widespread acclaim during Andrew’s peak for his 23-hour coverage at WTVJ in Miami.
A fragmented communication environment. Mobile phones and home computers make it easier than ever to access reliable updates from NHC and other trusted sources. It’s also easy for inaccurate or misleading information from “social media specialists” to catch fire.
“I think it’s a lot harder these days to get a message across to people, to get them to understand what you’re saying and what you want them to take away,” Norcross said.
Norcross also warns that a major power outage could plunge people into a bigger information hole than they did in 1992. At the time, battery-powered TVs and/or radios were in common use, and landline telephones were ubiquitous.
More people at risk. The population of Miami-Dade County has increased from about 2 million to 2.7 million since Andrew. Croplands and agricultural towns south of Miami have been overrun by urban sprawl.
Another concern: There haven’t been any major hurricane landings on the Southeast Florida coast since Andrew. The last before that was Betsy, in 1965. Hurricane Irma, which toppled Andrew in 2017 as Florida’s costliest hurricane, swept the Miami area on its southwest-to-northeast path.
“There is a whole generation of South Florida people who have never experienced major hurricane conditions,” Morales said. “There are also thousands of transplants — people who have no experience dealing with tropical cyclone emergencies.
“Another Andrew in South Florida would lead to major economic losses and potential fatalities, as well as leaving a region behind in a multi-year recovery effort.”