Author: Dennis Feltgen
Hurricane Andrew: Working in a Category 5 Storm
The hurricane season had yet to see its first named storm in August 1992, but that changed dramatically with the arrival of Hurricane Andrew.
South Florida and NOAA’s National Hurricane Center in Coral Gables took a direct hit from Andrew.
We’re going to take you behind the scenes for a glimpse of what it was like to be on duty during that fateful week twenty-five years ago.
The disturbance that had rolled off the coast of Africa became Tropical Storm Andrew on Aug. 17. But three days later, it almost disappeared.
“It looked like the storm had dissipated, but we hung onto it just a little bit longer”, said hurricane forecaster Dr. Richard Pasch, who was working the midnight shift. “The aircraft couldn’t locate the center, and Bob Sheets, the NHC director, came in and I told him I don’t think it’s going away. Bob said ’I don’t either‘, so we went ahead and hung onto it.”
It was a wise decision.
Just two days later, the Hurricane Hunter aircraft found a lower air pressure and better organization. On Saturday morning August 22, they found hurricane-force winds.
Hurricane forecaster Dr. Lixion Avila was on the morning shift. “In the 5 a.m. advisory, I made Andrew a hurricane. I called Director Bob Sheets, and he said ‘OK, I’ll be there in one hour.’”
Later that same day, Hurricane Research Division (HRD) scientists James Franklin and Dr. Mark DeMaria boarded the NOAA Hurricane Hunter WP-3D aircraft in San Juan as part of a dropwindsonde mission to better sample the winds around the hurricane. The mission ended in Miami about midnight and both went to NHC to see if the new data had an impact on the forecast models. “The models now showed Andrew’s path much farther south and a direct threat to Miami-Dade County,” said DeMaria who, along with Franklin, would go on to become part of the NHC management.
Andrew continued to rapidly strengthen as it approached South Florida.
In the pre-dawn hours of August 24, its eye, with winds screaming at more than 155 mph around it, neared the Dade County coastline.
Hurricane forecaster Dr. Ed Rappaport recalled how tense that night was, but he and many others were oblivious to the chaos outside. They were all focused on the analysis and typing out the 5 a.m. advisory with the updated forecast and warnings.
“When the advisory went out, somebody came up to me and said, ‘What do you think?’ I said, ‘about what?’ And he said ‘Well, the building’s swaying!’ A few minutes later, the anemometer measured a wind gust to 164 mph,” Rappaport said.
And then there was the time the whole building shook.
No one knew what it was, but NHC radar meteorologist Martin Nelson noticed the Miami radar, a WSR-57 (Serial #1), quit working.
“We believe another antenna broke loose and hit the fiberglass dome. Once that happened, the actual radar antenna was exposed,” Nelson said.
Part of that dome fell and landed on top of his pickup truck, while many other dome parts were blown down U.S. Highway 1. Radar fixes of Andrew’s trek over South Florida were captured by the new Doppler radar in Melbourne, Florida.
The day before Andrew made landfall, several NHC forecasters were sent to NOAA’s National Meteorological Center in Maryland to back up NHC just in case it was needed.
One of those forecasters was Hugh Cobb. He was taking a break in his hotel room hours after Andrew made landfall and turned on CNN where the newscaster was talking about damage to the hurricane center.
“I happened to glance up and I saw an image of my car. Apparently there was a blue car that was tossed on top of my car.”
Several other employees lost their cars. Worse, two dozen NHC and HRD employees had suffered major damage to their homes. Seven of those homes were destroyed.
NHC moved into a new single story facility three years later, well inland on the campus of Florida International University. Herb Saffir, a structural engineer, had a hand in the fortified design of the building. If the name sounds familiar…he is the “Saffir” in the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale.
When another hurricane strikes, especially one with the power of Andrew, things will be different.
“We’ve got a plan in place for a hurricane landfall here in Miami, and we have successfully exercised it a few times, including when 2005’s Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Wilma hit us,” said Rappaport, who is now the acting NHC Director. “We’ve got the shutters and other essentials here to provide protection…as we try to impress upon the public to do the same.”