Hurricane Andrew: The ImpactWeather Staff Remembers 20 Years Later

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Twenty years ago today, August 16, what would become the third costliest natural disaster in U.S. history was officially recognized as a tropical depression. Having moved off the African Coast as a wave two days prior, and still more than 3,000 miles and eight days away from its date with infamy on the southeastern Florida coast, Tropical Depression 3 was noted for its deep convection in an area of heavy wind shear (deep convection is needed for continued tropical development, but pronounced wind shear hampers that development). Over the next few days, the as-yet unnamed storm struggled but overall continued on its westward way to hurricane status, being named Tropical Storm Andrew on the 17th and Hurricane Andrew on the 22nd.  Two days later, early during the overnight hours of the 24th, Andrew reached the coast of Florida, passing between Homestead and Miami, and brutally began changing lives and creating life-long memories.

Infrared satellite imagery showing the landfall of Hurricane Andrew early on the morning of August 24, 1992. Image: NOAA

As a company comprised primarily of meteorologists, you would be correct in assuming we have many here who remember the storm. Though Hurricane Andrew was especially noted for the way it ravaged the southern tip of Florida, the storm made a second landfall as a strong Category 3 hurricane — this time on the coast of Louisiana. For a time, when Andrew emerged into the Gulf of Mexico, all of the northern Gulf was within Andrew’s crosshairs. From our staff, some quite young at the time and some well into their careers, here are a few of our Hurricane Andrew remembrances:

Rob Mitchell, Sr. Meteorologist, ImpactWeather MarineWatch: I remember Hurricane Andrew because it was the busiest day in my life while pulling an aviation forecast “day shift” at Universal Weather and Aviation (ImpactWeather’s former parent company). This was before information was available on the internet, and the phones were ringing constantly from all of our clients. Andrew had already crossed southern Florida and was in the Gulf. Unfortunately, there was no way to produce a flight weather brief without a phone call interruption from somebody wanting the latest on Andrew. ImpactWeather as we know it today did not exist and phone calls for each of the forecasters on duty was perhaps ten times the normal amount of phone calls!

Kevin Smith, Director of Operations, ImpactWeather: I was a sophomore at Lumberton High School in Lumberton, TX. School was cancelled and many people had already evacuated. My family evacuated to Jacksonville, TX to stay with some of my father’s family. Of course, there was no damage in our area as Andrew’s second landfall was well to the east of Lumberton. I recall thinking that the large evacuations seemed to be based more on the devastating damage that Andrew caused in Florida (Category 5) when it was much stronger, than it was based on Andrew’s actual strength in the Gulf of Mexico (Category 3). A similar situation happened in 2005 in Houston when Hurricane Rita threatened: Hurricane Katrina and the devastation of New Orleans was fresh in everyone’s mind here and it seemed every one and every vehicle attempted to leave Houston at the exact same moment.

Joe Basciani, Supervisor, ImpactWeather MarineWatch: 1992 was the fall of my junior year at Florida State.  Our nascent Hurricane Chase Team had formed the previous spring and had not yet deployed into a storm. Though we were ready to deploy to South Florida for Andrew, we were stymied by timing – the system made landfall on the first Monday of classes, and while our major classes were understanding, the university had a long-standing rule about dropping students who missed the first class of the semester, and our non-major classes wouldn’t waive the requirement. As a result, we were “stuck in school” on the day of landfall in South Florida. We ended up performing a chase for the second landfall in Louisiana, instead.

What did we learn in Louisiana? 1) Don’t get a room with windows that face into the wind — your window rapidly becomes overcome with rain and useless for filming through. Plus, water seeps through the seals and gets the carpet all wet. 2) It’s always better to ask for forgiveness than permission — don’t be afraid to do something/go somewhere because someone might tell you to stop — if they do, stop, but not before. That doesn’t mean driving around barricades or breaking the law, it just means not looking for certain trouble.  In this instance, we wanted to see how the LSU campus (which we’d been to a couple times for football games) was holding up during the storm, but the school was “closed.”  We got some of our best footage and highest wind results while on the LSU campus. 3) Don’t count on commercial radio for information — this lesson is less relevant in today’s instant-internet-everything world, but this was the pre-cell phone era (at least none of us had one), and so we were left to drive around Baton Rouge with only one radio station still on the air, and it was playing Oldies. Entertaining though it might be, I’m not sure “Up, Up and Away” by the Fifth Dimension counted as official news, information or instructions, or was particularly appropriate given the situation.

It's less so today, but it used to be common that the first sign of severe weather is the radar going down, however "RADOME DESTROYED" is a fairly unique comment. Image: Fred Rogers and NOAA

Fred Rogers, Marketing Manager, ImpactWeather: I remember how concerned everyone was at Universal Weather.  Meteorologically, Andrew wasn’t expected to make landfall anywhere near Universal’s headquarters in Houston, but a major hurricane heading to the Gulf or anywhere in the Gulf has a way of getting Houston residents’ attention. One of Universal’s senior meteorologists hosted unprecedented, very well-attended, twice-daily briefings in the lobby for the hundreds of employees.  Having grown up on the Texas coast, I knew it was a very serious storm because all of the meteorologists were very concerned and more than a little dour about Andrew’s potential for creating catastrophe.

Outside the Houston Astrodome, the weather was glorious. Photo: National Archives

Mickey Lee, Industry Manager, ImpactWeather: I remember how fabulous the weather was in Houston (dry and cool) the week before Andrew’s landfall during the 1992 Republican National Convention.  A climate anomaly at least as rare as a Category 5 hurricane hitting Florida.  It was there at the Houston Astrodome that Ronald Reagan made his last major address.

Alison Svrcek, Account Manager, ImpactWeather: Who knew that living in Alabama would cause memories of Hurricane Andrew? My family was in the process of moving from Tuscaloosa to Columbus when the storm hit the Gulf Coast and though the hurricane didn’t directly affect me at the time,  I distinctly recall the next March when I went to the Gulf Coast with some friends and the lobby of the hotel where we stayed was still gutted because of the damage from Andrew. A gutted hotel lobby seven months later? I was shocked and it made me realize the extent of the damage and how the seemingly high priority of a hotel’s lobby was back-burnered for much more serious repairs.

Eduardo Bosch, Senior Meteorologist, ImpactWeather MarineWatch: What I remember most about Hurricane Andrew in August of 1992 was its smell. Yes, when the hurricane passed about 20 to 50 miles east of Lafayette, Louisiana, I can remember the strong smell of diesel fuel penetrating our office at the Oil Center in Lafayette. Why would a hurricane smell like diesel fuel? While working at a very small, private weather company in south central Louisiana (Lafayette), we had to rent a diesel-fueled generator. Anticipating widespread power outages, we connected all the computers to the generator but did not connect the central air conditioner. It was August in Louisiana after all, so we had to keep the office windows open. Unfortunately, due to the orientation of the wind on the west side of the hurricane, the wind currents filled up our office with the stench of diesel-fuel exhaust (originating from our generators). So we had to work without air conditioning and with the awful smell of diesel fuel. Hurricane or not, our office remained open through the whole ordeal.

Recent photo of a former residential housing neighborhood of Homestead Air Force Base. Somewhere down there are lots of memories and the former Virginia Avenue home of ImpactWeather's Dave Gorham. Photo: Google

Yours Truly, Supervisor, Broadcast Meteorology, ImpactWeather: Viewed from Houston, Hurricane Andrew was a non-event for me. Until it was determined it was (or wasn’t) coming to Houston, I was busy elsewhere. However, almost 10 years earlier I had lived in Homestead, Florida. Well, technically, Homestead Air Force Base. I followed the storm’s progress, as much as pre-internet TV news coverage allowed, as closely as possible. In the light of day following landfall it was revealed that the Air Force base, like the city itself, was nearly completely destroyed. Twenty years later the base has gone through various missions and even names, and it has never returned to anything even close its former glory. The Homestead AFB house I lived in was destroyed. The church I was married in was destroyed. The air traffic control tower where my wife worked was abandoned and the weather station below the tower was heavily damaged. As a motorsports fan, I later remember thinking how impressive it was that just 365 days after Hurricane Andrew nearly ended Homestead as a community, ground was broken on the Homestead-Miami Speedway which was designed to help Homestead rebound from the brink of the abyss.

Paul Hastings, V.P. Corporate Enterprise Solutions, ImpactWeather: In 1992, I was a high school physics teacher in Delray Beach, FL. I remember how naively excited my students and I were about the thought of actually experiencing a hurricane for the first time in our lives. As the storm tracked closer and closer to FL, it became apparent that we may very well have that experience. We would see really big waves. The winds will be intense. We might even be without power for a couple hours, so I was sure to be prepared. I purchased a flashlight, batteries and some non-perishable food for the adventure. Oh no — last minute forecasts have Andrew veering south toward Miami. Looks like we’re going to have to settle with only receiving the outer effects of the storm. Winds will still be intense and the waves at the beach should still be pretty cool, we thought. I distinctly remember waking up the day after and hearing about the utter devastation that Andrew inflicted on Homestead. My disappointment from the previous day turned to a feeling of relief that this life-altering event did not directly affect my community or me. I was forever changed, and humbled, by the sheer destructive power that a hurricane can exact on society.

Dante Diaz, Meteorologist, ImpactWeather TropicsWatch: By the morning of August 23 (my parents’ anniversary), all of South Florida was feverishly preparing for Hurricane Andrew. My parents waited in long lines at Home Depot to pick up supplies, including plywood for the windows. We tried to prepare the house as best we could. Although our house is elevated more than 20 feet above sea level, we were just two miles from the coast. We evacuated to my paternal grandmother’s house a bit more north and inland of our home that evening. There were nine of us in total. We packed clothes for few days and left the dogs secured in the hallway. We had no idea that the core of Category Five Andrew was to pass over our house.

I awoke that night to the sound of the wind destroying my grandmother’s ancient aluminum shed. We gathered in the living room to watch the local news coverage. Naturally the power soon went out. I remember my father shouting out that the palm tree he was watching had fallen on one of the cars.

As Andrew came nearer things grew worse; small rocks began to hit the windows and the front door began to shake as rain was forced underneath the door. We re-located to an interior walk-in closet. I recall being very tired by this point and nodding off while standing in the closet. As the wind began to die down I must have fallen asleep as my next memory is walking into the front yard just after sunrise. It was still cloudy and breezy; a queen palm lay across the Toyota in the driveway, the white walls of the house were covered in green leaf fragments, the aluminum shed and its contents were scattered about the backyard. We also found a young cat just a few months old. My grandmother kept that cat (the cat died earlier this year). Two days later I remember waking from a nap and the first thing I saw were the rotating blades of the ceiling fan. We had electricity.

What my parents found when they returned to our house was heartbreaking: Andrew had lifted one piece of roof off along the eaves, but part of the hole was above the back of my parents’ closet which is where our photo albums, important documents, clothing and, as it turns out, birthday presents for my sister and me were kept. The windows were blown out and the ceilings collapsed in just about every room. Rainwater soaked the carpets and insulation was “glued” to the walls. The force of the wind coming through my parents’ bedroom window was so strong it cracked the opposite wall. The aluminum studs in the wall were bent. The dogs survived but were covered in bits of yellow insulation.

We went to my grandmother’s house on August 23rd and stayed there until Valentine’s Day, 1993. The following month the March Superstorm (aka the Storm of the Century) found us staring blankly at each other in our rebuilt house while gale force winds whistled outside. It was then that we knew how traumatized we had been. It took hours for Hurricane Andrew to move by, months for us to rebuild, and years to overcome the trauma.

Any remembrance is an opportunity to look ahead, while any tragedy is an opportunity to learn and improve so that future potential catastrophes can be mitigated or, hopefully, prevented. It’s been said that the sinking of the Titanic had to happen in order to bring about necessary changes to shipping and passenger safety; that, in the long run, countless lives have been saved because of the Titanic catastrophe.

Devastation to a neighborhood between Homestead and Miami following Hurricane Andrew. Photo: FEMA

Among the lessons learned from Hurricane Andrew, perhaps one dilemma is still not quite sorted out: insurance and insurance coverage. Andrew wasn’t the first of the “modern” hurricanes that caused a wave in the pool of insurance companies, but it was the largest at the time ($26.5 billion in damage and the third costliest U.S. hurricane). In fact, more than 600,000 claims were filed and nearly one million policy holders lost their insurance coverage following Andrew. This caused the Florida Legislature to create new entities to ensure adequate insurance capacity. Since Andrew, this has been an ongoing issue and not just for Florida residents. Most U.S. coastal residents now have to scramble/juggle/beg/borrow to maintain insurance coverage, while many others have simply departed the area altogether. In 2004, five hurricanes crisscrossed Florida. 2005’s Katrina and 2008’s Ike (the No. 1 and No. 2 costliest hurricanes in U.S. history, respectively) caused a combined loss of $145.6 billion. As I write this, my renewal notice from the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association (TWIA)  is waiting on my desk at home as I, like nearly all coastal residents of Texas, am unable to get homeowner coverage for wind damage through the normal channels.

List of Costliest U.S. Hurricanes.

However, not all the outcomes from Andrew were negative, and some are directly related to ImpactWeather. Like Dante, many of ImpactWeather’s meteorologists can trace their career path to a particular weather event. Because of Hurricane Andrew, Dante chose to become a tropical meteorologist and his knowledge and experience are now part of the ImpactWeather TropicsWatch team. Likewise, ImpactWeather Tropical Meteorologist Andrew Hagen can trace his career path to Hurricane Andrew (read a recent YourWeatherBlog article about Andrew here). Many ImpactWeather meteorologists can also trace their interest in meteorology to a particular weather event and/or a particular type of weather. Every cloud has its silver lining, as they say.

Read a recent article from USA Today titled “Children of Andrew,” featuring ImpactWeather’s Andrew Hagen and Dante Diaz.

It might be another 15 or 20 years from now, but I wonder how many of the future crop of newly minted meteorologists will attribute their careers to Hurricane Katrina, or Hurricane Ike, or Hurricane Charley, or Snowmagedden, or …? Today however, our thoughts are with those we remember who suffered so much 20 years ago.

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