STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Tropical Storm Isaac is cutting across Caribbean islands. A National Hurricane Center projection shows the storm spinning toward Florida. And if Isaac stays on track, it could blow through Tampa in time for the first day of the Republican Convention.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Now, Isaac approaches on an anniversary that Floridians vividly recall. Twenty years ago this week, Hurricane Andrew ripped into South Florida. Dozens of people died in the storm and in the chaotic aftermath.
INSKEEP: The experience forced Americans change how we respond to hurricanes, as NPR's Greg Allen reports.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: As hurricane seasons go, 1992 started out uncharacteristically quiet. Max Mayfield, then a forecaster at the National Hurricane Center, recalls receiving calls throughout July and August from reporters asking where the storms were. When Andrew formed in the Atlantic in mid-August, Mayfield says it was a weak storm that many thought would fall apart.
MAX MAYFIELD: It really didn't become a hurricane until the 22nd, which is only two days before, you know, it struck South Florida on the 24th. So we really didn't forecast it to a major hurricane until Saturday.
INSKEEP: Andrew hit the Bahamas as a Category 5 hurricane and barreled towards South Florida. Most residents had less than a day and to prepare their homes and to evacuate from coastal areas. Early on the morning of August 24th, Andrew slammed into the Florida coast, just south of Miami. On WTVJ TV, meteorologist Bryan Norcross stayed on the air issuing warnings as Andrew pounded the area.
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BRYAN NORCROSS: Do not think - boy, we can hear the sound out there now...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We really can.
NORCROSS: ...can't we? Do not think that you are in any way safe. If you not hunkered down and got that mattress over you, friends, this is the time to do it.
ALLEN: Wind speeds later estimated at over 160 miles per hour broke the gauges. It was a small, fast-moving hurricane, tiny compared to slow giants like Katrina and Rita. But along with Hurricane Camille in 1969 and the 1935 Labor Day hurricane, Andrew was only the third Category 5 hurricane to make landfall in the continental U.S. since recordkeeping began.
DOUG AUSTIN: I'm not sure, I think it was around quarter to five, is when a plank from my neighbor's fence came crashing through my bedroom window.
ALLEN: Doug Austin had only been at his new Miami home a few years when Hurricane Andrew destroyed it. Because it was new and several miles from the coast, he recalls that his in-laws came to stay with him, his wife and their one-year-old son. With glass flying everywhere, Austin says they packed into a hallway closet. But then his father-in-law made the mistake of opening the front door.
AUSTIN: And when the wind caught the front door, it almost blew it off the hinges. But at that time, more wind came inside my house, thus knocking down a majority of the interior walls.
ALLEN: And that happened just like...
AUSTIN: Just the force of the wind, in a split second.
ALLEN: Austin's home, like nearly all in South Florida, is concrete block. The exterior walls were left standing, but his roof was gone, his home devastated. After the storm, he saw most of his neighbors had suffered similar damage.
AUSTIN: Cars were damaged from roof debris. It looked like a bomb had gone off, it really did.
ALLEN: It was a huge national story.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: People in South Florida are digging out from the worst hurricane to hit them since 1926.
ALLEN: As people began to assess the damage, it turned out that the amount of devastation brought by Hurricane Andrew differed greatly neighborhood to neighborhood. While some, like Austin's, were totally destroyed, others saw little more than downed trees and missing shingles. The difference was in how they were built.
RICARDO ALVAREZ: Andrew was mostly a wind issue, and actually a wakeup call.
ALLEN: Ricardo Alvarez is a researcher who specializes in hurricane protection. South Florida already had a good building code. Alvarez says investigators found much of the damage was caused by faulty construction. Also, the county had allowed builders to use some cost-saving shortcuts, like using weaker strand board instead of plywood, and instead of roofing nails, staples.
ALVAREZ: And we didn't find out until Andrew that staples had no capacity to hold that piece of plywood or strand board to the structure.
ALLEN: So the roofs were gone, then.
ALVAREZ: And as a roof goes, that box that protects you has a huge opening. And through that comes wind, rain, debris.
ALLEN: After the storm, staples and strand board were banned. Alvarez helped develop a nail that has since become standard for all roofing in South Florida. In addition, South Florida's building code now requires homes to have storm shutters or impact-resistant glass. Thanks to Hurricane Andrew, it's the strongest building code in the nation. Requirements for homeowners changed, and also for businesses and institutions.
At Miami's Mercy Hospital, facilities supervisor Jeff Madonia says when Andrew hit, a 12-foot storm surge inundated the hospital.
JEFF MADONIA: We had a foot-and-a-half of water in the ground floor, fish swimming down the hallway. We had a freighter in the back - back in the parking lot over there.
ALLEN: A ship came up.
MADONIA: Fifty-footer easily, yeah. It was bad.
ALLEN: After Andrew, Mercy Hospital installed heavy-duty metal doors.
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ALLEN: That is a secure door.
MADONIA: Well, it's not going to go anywhere. Water won't get in there at all.
ALLEN: The doors have rubber gaskets to seal off sensitive areas from future storm surges. It was work ordered and largely paid for by the federal government. After Andrew, federal emergency managers began working for the first time to ensure public buildings would be rebuilt to withstand future disasters. Since Andrew, the government has learned a lot about how to prepare and respond to hurricanes. Another area where there's been much improvement is in forecasting.
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BOB SHEETS: Hurricane Andrew now nears the shore of southeast Florida at this hour...
ALLEN: When former director of the National Hurricane Center Bob Sheets gave updates on Andrew, he had far fewer tools than today. Forecasters relied on observations from a single satellite and wind speed measurements by aircraft flying through the storm at 10,000 feet. Today, there are many more satellites, plus devices dropped from airplanes to take readings from within a hurricane's core. James Franklin with the NHC says they provide much more data for the computer models that forecast hurricane tracks.
JAMES FRANKLIN: The models themselves have gotten much more detailed in what they can see, what they can represent, as computers have gotten faster and faster.
ALLEN: As models improved a decade after Andrew, the NHC introduced an important new graphic for the public: the cone of uncertainty. It's gotten more accurate over the years, and now reliably shows what coastal areas may be affected by a hurricane five days out. An area where the NHC has made less progress is in its ability to forecast intensity, to foresee the kind of rapid strengthening Andrew went through in 1992. That's a tougher challenge, but one meteorologists are working on.
Former director of the National Hurricane Center Max Mayfield says despite all the improvements in forecasting, preparing and responding to hurricanes, there's still something that bothers him about Andrew: for Miami, it wasn't the big one.
MAYFIELD: That core of the hurricane in Andrew did not go over Miami Beach, the city of Miami, the port of Miami, Miami International Airport. It was well south of there. If that track had been shifted 15 or 20 miles to the north, as bad as things were, it could have been much, much, much worse.
ALLEN: Andrew was a small Category 5 hurricane and not even the worst storm ever to hit South Florida. The 1926 hurricane, which struck in Miami's early days, devastated the city. It was a Category 4 hurricane, but it inundated the area with a 15-foot storm surge. If Miami took a similar direct hit today, researchers say the impact would be far worse than Andrew, with triple the costs. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.
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INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.