15 years ago today, Mother Nature decided to pay a visit to bustling Dade County, Florida. She actually arrived as a "He" and nearly everyone knew of her intentions, so few were there to greet him.
Hurricane Andrew is the second-most-destructive hurricane in U.S. history, and the last of three Category 5 hurricanes that made U.S. landfall during the 20th century. Andrew caused $26.5 billion in damage ($41.1 billion in 2007 US dollars), with most of that damage cost in South Florida. The hurricane resulted in 65 deaths. (1)
Compared to Katrina, Andrew was small – just 110 miles wide. But as the storm approached the Florida coast, Andrew whipped up fierce winds of 175 miles per hour. That’s when he decided to make landfall, taking aim at one of South Florida's most densely populated areas -- Dade County.
In addition to the unprecedented winds (one gust was clocked at 212 mph) Andrew spawned hundreds of tiny tornadoes called mini-whirls. It was these vortices -- not straight line winds -- that are believed to have caused the major damage.
Residents of South Florida, specifically Dade County, had plenty of time to heed warnings from emergency officials. Evacuation was mandatory and most citizens made their way North into Central Florida to wait out the storm. Only a few teams of emergency personnel remained behind.
Because of its size, Andrew crossed the peninsula and and into the Gulf of Mexico in just a few hours, but destruction that the storm left during such a short period was unimaginable. The swath extended from Miami in the north – to Homestead, Florida and the upper Keys in the south. Virtually all of southern Dade County lay in ruins. Final tally: More than 25,500 homes were destroyed, over 101,000 others damaged and 65 people killed.
Andrew caused so much damage at Homestead Air Force Base, very near the point of landfall, that the base was forced to close and its squadrons relocated to Italy. Metro-Dade Fire and Rescue was on the street in full strength within an hour of Andrew’s passing making a systematic search of neighborhoods. The department was joined by other emergency personnel from throughout the nation as they combed through the ruins searching for trapped victims. And there were plenty of ruins to search.
Even though Katrina eclipsed Andrew, the statistics from the storm still hold considerable weight. Following the storm, the federal government, the state and municipalities considered Andrew’s visit as a wake-up call and soon took the concept of storm preparedness to new levels.
I believe that writer Ken Kaye of Florida’s Sun Sentinel sums it best.
“Today, South Florida in many ways is stronger because of Andrew, considering that the storm prompted a massive rebuilding and resulted in tougher building codes. But before dawn on that Monday, when the winds were screaming, it was one of this region's darkest hours.” (2)
(1) Wikipedia summary
(2) Sun Sentinel