Hurricane Andrew: August 1992
Hurricane Andrew was a wake-up call for the US. Hurricane Hugo in 1989 had caused a massive amount of damage in Charleston, SC as a result of wind and a massive storm surge up to 6 meters (20 feet). But Andrew was the first major hurricane to hit a major metropolitan area in a long time, and it exposed glaring weaknesses in preparedness, especially building codes. The storm narrowly missed downtown Miami and Miami Beach, which would have led to truly catastrophic damage and many more fatalities. However, the areas that took direct hit including South Miami, Perrine, Cutler Ridge, and Kendall had seen rampant development over the preceding ten years so the damage was still devastating.
Andrew came ashore in the early morning of August 24, 1992, near Homestead with sustained winds of 165 mph, gusts of 177 mph and a storm surge up to 5 meters (17 feet). Fortunately, the storm had a very rapid forward motion of 16 mph so the maximum impact didn’t last that long, and the storm was quite compact, however, Andrew’s winds still wrecked a narrow trail of havoc. In 1992 development in South Florida was booming. Much of the western part of the Miami metro area is land that has been reclaimed from the Everglades over the past half-century, one of the most extensive and radical reclamation projects in the world. The Everglades is the largest subtropical wetlands in the world, aptly called “a sea of grass” by the famous naturalist Marjorie Stoneman Douglas. The wetlands naturally drain to the south, but this was changed in the 1950s to 1970s when drainage canals were constructed, supposedly to control flooding from hurricanes, and diverted the water to the west and east. The resulting changes to the natural landscape were nothing short of disastrous. Rapid urbanization has covered large areas of the former Everglades with concrete leading to flash flooding in storms, which undoubtedly made damage from Andrew more intense. As devastating storms like Andrew and sea level rise (Module 3) threaten coastal parts of South Florida, we are constantly reminded that the Everglades were not meant to be urbanized.
The other lesson from Andrew had to do with building codes. I remember from my time living in Miami in the late 1980s numerous sprawling developments with large, wooden framed and wood and plaster sided homes packed close to one another on meandering streets with pools, clubhouses, and other amenities. Country Walk was one of them, a particularly massive development of wood-framed houses, which now lives in Andrew infamy. Construction in Country Walk by the company Arvida was particularly shoddy and houses fell like match-sticks in Andrew. The damage was just catastrophic. Residents told harrowing stories of windows and doors exploding, walls toppling over and popcorn ceilings, and whole second stories collapsing. Many people sheltered in interior bathrooms only to have the roofs collapse on them. Almost no homes were left with roofs after the storm. 95% of the 1700 homes in Country Walk were completely destroyed. The difference between Country Walk and neighboring developments with more solid construction was stark. Most residents of Country Walk collected their insurance money and moved away, often out of state.
Investigations of Country Walk found gables that were not braced or connected to roofs, plus poorly connected trusses, sheathing, strapping, and tie beams. Pre-construction plans on models were not checked by structural engineers and inspectors were found to have cut corners because of heavy workloads and many were just doing drive-bys instead of inspecting homes closely.
Video: Hurricane Andrew - Tamiami Airport/Country Walk (19:37) (Video is not narrated.)
This video shows the devastation of Country Walk.
Country Walk was not the only development with severe damage from Andrew. The storm basically exposed all poor construction. In light of this damage and with a view towards the stronger storms of the future, South Florida counties instituted very strict building codes. Code in the so-called “high-velocity hurricane zone” where “basic wind speed” (a measure of the recurrence of strong storms) is over 180 mph, including Miami-Dade and Broward counties, requires new construction to be a wind-resistant design, including windows, doors, and eaves. Hurricane shutters are mandatory in all parts of the state where the basic wind speed is over 120 mph. The performance and installation of shutters are very strict. However, regulations other than shutters vary from area to area and are constantly under attack from the construction industry, so who knows what the future will bring. One last aspect of living in a hurricane-prone area is crazy expensive insurance. Rates for insurance depends on the number of hurricane improvements a home has but can be up to $8,000 a year for a home valued at $150,000!
Video: Hurricane Andrew - Miami-Dade County, Florida - August 23-24, 1992 (8:18) (Video includes people talking, but is not narrated.)
This video summarized the power of Andrew.
Video: Then and Now: Scenes from Hurricane Andrew (11:39)
This video provides a more personal glimpse of the impact of the storm.
There is no doubt that South Florida is much better prepared than it was in 1992. And there is also no doubt it will need to be.