Today is the last of a four-parter on Florida’s great hurricanes. In the previous weeks, we’ve heard about The Great Miami Storm, The Great Okeechobee Hurricane and The Labor Day Storm. Today, we hear about one of the strongest storm to strike our home state, Hurricane Andrew. Welcome to Florida Time, a weekly column about Florida history.
Early on Aug. 24, 1992, a monster hurricane named Andrew swept across southern Florida. The Earth also experienced Katrina in New Orleans and Maria in Puerto Rico which were lesser storms whose carnage was exponentially multiplied by man-made failures. Some of that occurred with Andrew as well. But most of what Hurricane Andrew did was the result of the storm’s almost inconceivable power.
Never before had a storm that powerful struck a place so populated -- and not since. Its impact changed the way we prepare for -- and recover from -- hurricanes. Not just in Florida but nationwide.
The ordeal of Andrew was intensified because two and a half days before it struck, it wasn’t on the radar. Forecasters said on the afternoon of Friday, Aug. 21, that the system was disorganized and wandering, and they should go about their normal business. Early on Saturday morning, everything had changed. The system had been reformed into a hurricane and was on a beeline for Miami.
Late on Sunday night, the range of probable landfall tightened to southern Miami-Dade County. Even then, forecasters still kept up hurricane warnings for a 230-mile stretch of Florida’s east coast from Vero Beach to Key West. They had learned from the overconfidence of predecessors, such as the ones in 1928 who swore, right up to the last minute, that the storm would spare Florida.
Probably more than a half-million people experienced hurricane force winds on Aug. 24, 1992, and someone looking at photographs of entire neighborhoods that were flattened might presume a death toll of hundreds, perhaps thousands.
But the Category 5 storm by which the great monsters of the early twenty-first century all will be measured, at least in strength, was for the most part, not a killer. In fact, only
Why did Andrew kill so few? Because their homes protected them, even as the buildings came down around them.
And primarily, Andrew was a wind storm. As we explained last week, it is the water that primarily kills people. According to authorities, between 1963 and 2012, 49 percent of tropical cyclone deaths were storm-surge related. Another 27 percent were attributed to rain accumulation. Just 8 percent were from wind.
Andrew’s rainfall total in southern Florida was just 7 inches. It did make Biscayne Bay rise nearly 17 feet, and sent a storm surge onto land but the actual stretch of coast south of Miami where it struck is not nearly as densely populated as areas just a few miles to the north.
Florida realized it had to learn from its collective laziness or pay the price again. All the things people do by rote now, many didn't do then. They didn't get shutters, water or batteries. They had no idea what they would do if a storm came. Whether they would stay or leave, and if they left, where they would go. And not just individuals. State and local governments had let their plans for evacuations and response collect dust.
The state formed a commission that proposed changes ranging from the critical, a clear chain of command with Tallahassee at the top, to the mundane, having purchase orders in place so managers could get equipment. It made no fewer than 94 recommendations; the legislature and state agencies adopted 84 of them. A remarkable feat. And South Florida rebuilt.
Psychological scars took a lot longer to heal.
Next week: Who owns Cross Creek?
Last week: Florida History: The storm that washed away hundreds of workers and builders
A reader asks: Ref Andrew -- just gotta say, when whatever you write about that storm runs, if it seems you have bought into the official line about the incredibly low death count, you will forever earn the scorn of those of us who know better. Cheers. - Linda, Leesburg
Eliot answers: Hi Linda. Sorry, I am just now responding as I have been out for two weeks. I have written many stories about Andrew and in fact spent two weeks in the hardest-hit area, which is where I grew up before moving to Palm Beach County. My parents and siblings were in the worst of it. I have never heard that there's a dispute about the death count in South Florida and have used figures many times over the past 27 years without anyone challenging me or the sources I employed, which include the National Hurricane Center, Miami-Dade officials, the Florida Division of Emergency Management, the Phil Lewis Commission and FEMA. You say you "know better," so you must have information that far more people were killed in South Florida than has been reported. I'd love to hear details and documentation, as well as who is doing the covering up and why.
Eliot Kleinberg has been a staff writer for the past three decades at The Palm Beach Post in West Palm Beach, and is the author of 10 books about Florida (www.ekfla.com). Florida Time is a product of GateHouse Media and publishes online in their 22 Florida markets including Jacksonville, Fort Walton Beach, Daytona Beach, Lakeland, Sarasota and West Palm Beach. Submit your questions, comments or memories to FloridaTime@Gatehousemedia.com. Include your full name and hometown. Sorry; no personal replies.