Caption: NOAA/NWS Daily Weather Map for 7:00 a.m. EST (8:00 a.m. EDT), August 24, 1992. A small, yet extremely powerful Hurricane Andrew is centered over southwestern Florida, just three hours after making landfall as the third category 5 hurricane to strike the United States mainland.
When it comes to hurricanes of the mid-20th century and beyond, there are several storms that left such an indelible mark on the lives they touched that the mere mention of their names alone is enough to evoke memories for those who lived through them. For the residents of south Florida, Andrew is one such storm.
After what seemed like an early start to the 1992 Atlantic hurricane season with the development of an unnamed subtropical storm in late April—more than a month before the official start of the season—there was relatively little activity until mid-August, when a tropical wave that formed off the west coast of Africa began moving over the warm waters of the North Atlantic and intensifying. By August 17, it had gained enough strength to be classified as the season's first tropical storm. Andrew was born.
Andrew struggled to develop over the next several days. At one point, on August 20, an Air Force Reserve reconnaissance aircraft found that the storm “had degenerated to the extent that only a diffuse low-level circulation center remained.” Nevertheless, Andrew clung to its tropical storm status, thanks in part to “vigorous winds aloft” and despite an unusually high central pressure of 1015 millibars.
The outlook began to change for Andrew over the next couple of days, as it interacted with a weakening low pressure system near Bermuda and a rather strong high pressure system near the coast of the Southeast United States. Andrew became a hurricane on the morning of August 22, and within just 24 hours, it strengthened to the point where it became a category 5 storm, with a peak intensity of 150 knots (173 mph) and 922 millibars. (Initially, Andrew was classified as a category 4 hurricane at its peak, but it was reclassified as a category 5 storm following a 2005 reanalysis.) Despite its intensity, Andrew remained a relatively small hurricane, with tropical storm force winds extending out only about 90 miles from the storm's center.
Although Andrew made five official landfalls, including two in the Bahamas and one in Louisiana, it will be forever remembered for its dramatic landfall near Homestead, Florida, about 30 miles southwest of Miami. Just after 5:00 a.m. on August 24, Andrew came ashore in South Florida with sustained winds of 145 knots (167 mph), making it only the third hurricane (along with the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 and Hurricane Camille in 1969) to make landfall on the mainland United States as a category 5 storm.
About 20 miles to the north of the center of the storm, Dr. Bob Sheets, director of the National Hurricane Center, rode out the storm with other members of his staff and their families in the center's building in Coral Gables. Writing with Jack Williams in their 2001 book Hurricane Watch, Sheets describes the feeling inside the center:
The staff can only imagine the incredible violence the storm is unleashing on Perrine, Cutler Ridge, Homestead, Florida City, and other areas only a few miles away, places where many of them and their families live. With winds gusting to 170 miles per hour and higher in the southern Dade County suburbs early Sunday morning, all anyone can do is hope and pray for survival of life, limb, family, and home.
It took Andrew about four hours to cross the Florida Peninsula. In that time, according to The New York Times, it transformed the 40-mile stretch of U.S. Route 1 from Miami to Florida City “from comfortable suburban sprawl to a trail of devastation. A drive that would normally take less than an hour was a daylong obstacle course of downed trees, limp power lines, wrecked vehicles and ambling bands of looters.”
Despite weakening, Andrew remained a major hurricane as it crossed the Southwestern Florida coast and entered the Gulf of Mexico. It made its final landfall as a category 3 storm along the south-central Louisiana coast during the early morning of August 26.
Andrew caused an estimated $26.5 billion dollars in damage (1992 dollars), making it the costliest U.S. hurricane at the time (it has since been exceeded by Hurricane Katrina), and it was directly responsible for 26 deaths.
Three years later, Sheets addressed attendees of the annual National Hurricane Conference with a grim scenario of what might have been. “If Hurricane Andrew had tracked only 20 miles further north in Florida,” he said, “two different studies show losses would have topped $75 billion in Florida alone.” Sheets estimated that had the metropolitan areas of Fort Myers and New Orleans been in Andrew's path, the damage could have exceeded $100 billion.
In a season that began so benignly that it might almost have been forgotten, Andrew, as the first named storm of the season, ensured that it would never be. As a result of the deaths and destruction it caused, Andrew's name was officially retired in 1993. As an interesting footnote, the names of two of the other three hurricanes that formed in the Atlantic basin in 1992—Charley and Frances—would also be retired, but not until after they had been used two more times each, in 1998 and during the particularly active and destructive hurricane season of 2004.
Contributing Editor SEAN POTTER is a New York-based Certified Consulting Meteorologist (CCM), Certified Broadcast Meteorologist (CBM), and science writer with an interest in weather history.