The “Greatest Storms on Earth” – Part VI
In the afternoon of August 23, 1992, highways were jammed as over 700,000 people in South Florida were evacuating due to Hurricane Andrew that was still offshore and bearing down on Miami. By midnight, the eye of the storm was starting to have cycles of eye wall replacement, a phenomenon that occurs in very intense hurricanes (meaning this Category 4 storm was strengthening), while Andrew, the first hurricane of the season, was still 100 miles east of Miami. Indecisive residents quickly found that their window of opportunity was gone forcing them to remain in their homes; sleep that night became the least of their problems.
Fortunately for many, and a catastrophe for others, Andrew unexpectedly hit south of Greater Miami as a relatively small but powerful hurricane with sustained winds of 140 mph in a radius of 30 miles around the eye. With wind gusts of over 175 mph, it cut a path of destruction south of Kendall Drive cutting through Cutler Ridge, Homestead and Florida City. Homestead Air Force Base was virtually destroyed, while entire neighborhoods were gone, looking like a tornado had hit—there were no trees, no houses, no power lines, no street signs and piles of twisted, unrecognizable junk and debris. Remarkably, the rain bands did not drop as much rain as expected, meaning that, for the most part, it was wind-driven damage, except along the coastal areas like Biscayne Bay where the storm hit at high tide, creating a 16.9-foot surge, a record for southeastern Florida. The storm damaged approximately 15,000 pleasure boats.
One-quarter million people were left homeless that night while fifteen people died in Dade County. The central pressure recorded showed Andrew was
the second most intense hurricane to ever hit Florida, surpassed only by the 1935 Hurricane that destroyed Islamorada. The very low pressure made survivors report their ears had popped, their teeth ached and they had sinus headaches. Andrew moved due west quickly at 18 mph, cutting a path through Monroe County and destroying 70,000 acres of trees in the remote Everglades, and exited Florida through the National Park between Florida Bay and Everglades City.
The news of the devastation in Florida traveled fast. More than 1.5 million people evacuated the Louisiana coast as Andrew worked its way northwest through the Gulf of Mexico, hitting the less populated central coast of that state with sustained winds of 115 mph. Numerous tornadoes were spun off, destroying houses at random. Eight more lives were lost as the storm plowed through Louisiana.
Andrew passed south of Collier County as a “backdoor” storm, meaning one that came from the east. The winds and rain bands of the storm’s upper right quadrant, where the winds in the eye wall are moving in the same direction as the forward movement of the storm, brushed Collier County the morning of August 24, 1992 between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. with 75 mph winds and gusts at 100 mph. Everglades City flooded and the Marco Island Fire Department was unable to respond or access Goodland by either water or road due to the extensive flooding there. Fortunately, 3,300 residents of southern Collier County evacuated to local shelters, while many more headed to central Florida. Goodland did not have electric power for over 35 hours and, as the waters receded, the town was left in a sea of mud with significant damage everywhere. The most visible damage, other than the trailers destroyed, were at Stan’s Idle
Hour, the Little Bar and Mar-Good Resort (where eight local residents had holed up for the storm). Nearly 100 boats in the canals of Goodland were trapped by the fallen seawalls.
Meanwhile, on Marco most residents obeyed the mandatory evacuation order and had left. However, over 400 people stayed at the Marriott Hotel on the beach, including 125 staff and their families, who tried to find shelter in the hotel hallways during the brunt of the storm. Marco also lost its power supply during the storm, but it was repaired and running by the next day. As Islanders returned, they found many roads blocked by fallen trees and debris, especially in “The Pines” area of the Island (south of the YMCA and east of Mackle Park), where numerous shallow-rooted Australian pine trees had fallen on houses. A few years later, “The Pines” became just a memory. Numerous boats and seawalls were damaged or destroyed by the battering they took from the high seas and winds. A bridge on Winterberry washed out and was closed for repairs, but remarkably the beach sustained little to no damage. The bald eagle nest near the YMCA was destroyed. Like most of the rest of Collier County, fortunately, Marco’s damage was primarily to landscaping, pool enclosures, roofs, boats and seawalls.
At Williams Capri Marina on Isles of Capri the boat racks were blown down, destroying 65 boats. Luckily, there were very few injuries and no deaths in Collier County. However, soon after the storm passed, many complained about the horrible smell, which was hydrogen sulfate released from the decaying organic mud in mangrove swamps stirred up by Andrew.
After the storm, Collier County residents looked eastward and much of the post- Andrew
effort was to provide relief to south Dade County. The area impacted by the storm was larger than the city of Chicago. Major issues dominating the news had to do with the Federal disaster response, the environmental damage to the Everglades, and huge concerns regarding the poor quality of construction. There were high points: with the generous outpouring of national support, the Red Cross spent $65 million dollars in relief efforts, the U.S. Military had 22,000 troops on the ground along with 7,000 National Guard troops, and within a 10 day period over 1.7 million free meals were supplied. The low points were the looting in southern Dade County, where shopkeepers were forced to guard their own stores; the fraud in both insurance claims and construction prices after the storm; the emotional toll for thousands of shocked victims; and millions of hours expended in clean-up that would take several years.
Total damages were estimated at $26.5 billion in 1992 dollars (only exceeded in U.S. history by Katrina in 2005 which had $81 billion in damages to New Orleans and the upper Gulf Coast.) State Farm Insurance paid out close to $4 billion in losses. Collier County’s estimated damages were $30 million with 4,957 properties having significant damage. To counter adverse publicity and a decrease in tourism, the Lee County Commission approved a $750,000 campaign with the message that the Gulf Coast was not impacted by Andrew. Two years after the hurricane, in 1994 Miami-Dade County started developing new building codes focusing on the structural integrity of buildings. Those building codes were accepted and adopted widely and became the new national standard for safety and protection. Later, ten years after the storm, wind data was re-examined and some experts determined that Andrew had reached Category 5 status upon impact to Florida.