This August marks the 25th anniversary of the only Category 5 hurricane ever to hit a major U.S. metropolitan area--Hurricane Andrew, which struck South Florida on August 24, 1992, causing 15 direct deaths in South Florida and leaving a then-record $26.5 billion in damage (1992 dollars). A new book by Weather Channel meteorologist and hurricane expert Bryan Norcross tells the story like no one else can, and is a must-read for anyone interested in hurricanes. “My Hurricane Andrew Story: The story behind the preparation, the terror, the resilience, and the renowned TV coverage of the Great Hurricane of 1992" describes his extraordinary experience as a TV meteorologist for NBC's WTVJ in Miami, where he became the man who “talked South Florida through” the great storm, staying on-air for 23 consecutive hours during the height of the hurricane. This was several years before Internet access became widespread among the general public. During much of his on-the-air marathon, Norcross was the only weathercaster people had to turn to. The storm knocked out the communications to the CBS and ABC stations, and the FOX station was operating out of their transmitter building and did not have good resources (also, they had fired their weathercaster the week before!). Norcross's WTVJ station had arranged for its audio to be carried by a local radio station, allowing anyone with a transistor radio to follow their broadcast. You can see some clips of the marathon on Norcross’s YouTube channel, embedded below.
|Figure 1. Hurricane Andrew at 8:31 am EDT Sunday August 23, 1992. At the time, Andrew was a Category 5 hurricane with 165 mph winds and a central pressure of 933 mb.|
A riveting day-by-day and advisory-by-advisory account
The book begins with a day-by-day chronology of events, starting with August 19, 1992, when the Hurricane Hunters paid their first visit to Tropical Storm Andrew--1,500 miles southeast of Miami. Concern was low about the season’s first storm, which was battling high wind shear and was expected to recurve to the north without affecting the U.S. As of midday Friday, Andrew was still just a slowly intensifying tropical storm, with top winds of 50 knots. By Friday afternoon, August 21—just 2 ½ days before landfall in South Florida—Norcross relates how he was the first one to begin discussing the possibility that Andrew could be a hurricane in South Florida. “But I was treating that as an extremely remote possibility at that time,” he writes.
His chapter on “Nervous Saturday” tells a different story, though, and begins: “by Saturday morning there was a lot more to be nervous about.” His account of that day, and of Sunday, August 23—the day before the hurricane—and of Monday, August 24--the day of the hurricane--are truly riveting. He uses each 6-hourly NHC advisory as a dramatic tool to advance the story.
|Figure 2. Bryan Norcross demonstrates an early use of the “Cone of Uncertainty” in his public hurricane forecast on August 19, 1992 for Tropical Storm Andrew as it approached South Florida. The uncertainty envelope was computed using error estimates supplied to him by Charlie Neumann of the National Hurricane Center (NHC). According to a conversation I had with Bryan, the “Cone of Uncertainty” first began being used as a briefing tool within the government in the late 1980s, but was not used publicly by NHC until 2002. From the mid 1990s until 2002, uncertainty estimates for a hurricane were only given as a graphic with strike probability percentages by NHC. The Weather Channel and others started using a cone (with no rounded end) beginning in 1999. Image credit: WTVJ/NBC 6, Miami.|
The 23-hour marathon
At 9 am Sunday, August 23, Norcross sat down at the anchor desk for what would be a continuous stretch of 23 hours of storm coverage. During the height of the storm—a “3 1/2 –hour war”, he calls it—his crew was forced to retreat to their safe room to continue broadcasting. Category 5 winds demolished thousands of homes with people inside, who were listening to Norcross’s broadcast. He advised them to get their family to their safe spot, like a small interior bathroom, get a mattress over them, and wait out the hurricane. He relates, “It was the smartest thing I have ever said. I have been amazed and gratified by the stories I have heard from people who spent the storm under a mattress.”
|Figure 3. Hurricane Andrew’s winds caused near-total destruction to this neighborhood between Miami and Homestead. Image credit: FEMA.|
Norcross’s stories of the chaos of the aftermath of the hurricane are as engrossing as his tale of the storm’s rampage. A major metropolitan area suffered the destruction of about 25,000 homes, with another 100,000+ homes damaged, leaving at least 175,000 people homeless. In addition, 82,000 businesses were damaged or destroyed, along with 31 public schools, 59 health facilities/hospitals, 9,500 traffic signals, 3,300 mi (5,300 km) of power lines, and 3,000 water mains. Power was out for up to three months in the hardest-hit areas.
Andrew’s worst winds missed downtown Miami, though. Bryan warns how if the hurricane had hit just ten miles to the north, some 500,000 homes would have been damaged or destroyed, leaving up to 1.6 million people homeless.
|Figure 4. Hurricane Andrew radar at landfall. Also, check out this radar landfall loop on YouTube. Image credit: NOAA/AOML/HRD.|
Warnings and lessons learned
Norcross has plenty of sage advice on the lessons learned from the storm:
- Well-built structures survived Category 5 winds from the storm, and he strongly supports the South Florida building code, which is the toughest in the nation.
- In this age of cellphones and social media, post-storm communication challenges after the next mega-hurricane will be significantly greater than they were in 1992, due to large decrease in land lines and battery-powered transistor radios.
- His final take-home message: “Andrew’s primary lesson is that the worst does happen and you must prepare. Storms explode into ultra hurricanes right near the coast. Forecasts still go wrong, and even a good forecast incorporating the best modern science cannot predict with certainty whether the core of a hurricane will hit Miami or Fort Lauderdale 24 hours in advance."
"My Hurricane Andrew Story: The story behind the preparation, the terror, the resilience, and the renowned TV coverage of the Great Hurricane of 1992", by Bryan Norcross, is $14.99 from Amazon.com (paperback, 219 pages.) My main complaint about the book is that it did not include a map of South Florida showing the path of the storm and the areas affected. However, there are a number of small black-and-white photos included that are essential to the story (though it would have been nice if the images were larger). Overall, the book deserves four stars out of four.