Andrew Remembered

Max Mayfield, former Director of the National Hurricane Center, today concludes our Hurricane Andrew: Twenty Years, Twenty Stories blog series.  He adds his memories to the unique slate of voices recalling the storm that changed the face of Miami and served as the impetus for the modern disaster safety movement.  We hope you enjoyed the series and encourage you to continue to visit as we add stories and information to help you strengthen your home and safeguard your family against disasters.   

Like many South Florida residents, I have some pretty vivid memories from Hurricane Andrew.  I’ll share my thoughts focused on South Florida from my perspective as one of the Hurricane Specialists at the National Hurricane Center (NHC) that was located in Coral Gables on U.S. 1 across from the University of Miami during 1992 and also as someone whose family and home went through the northern eyewall of Andrew.

Meteorologists will remember Andrew as one of only three Category 5 hurricanes to strike the mainland United States.  Direct deaths (from the actual hazards of the hurricane) totaled 26 including three in the Bahamas, 15 in Florida and eight in Louisiana.  Dozens more indirect deaths occurred, many during the recovery period.  Andrew’s total damage estimate of $26.5 billion (1992 dollars) made it the most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history up to that time.

I remember receiving calls at NHC from the media during the first part of August asking about the absence of tropical storms and hurricanes.  A rather typical looking tropical wave crossed the west coast of Africa on August 14th.  Based on satellite imagery, I wrote the first official NHC advisory on what eventually became Andrew during the night of August 16th.  It became a tropical storm on the 17th and was steered westward and northwestward over the next few days.  As the upper-level pattern became more favorable for strengthening, Andrew became a hurricane on August 22nd while centered about 600 miles to the east of the Bahamas.  This was only two days before making landfall in South Florida.  Andrew was steered nearly due westward for the next few days and, after passing through the Bahamas, made landfall (defined as the center of the eye initially moving over land) in Florida first over Elliott Key at 4:40 am followed by landfall on the mainland near Fender Point (about 9 miles east-northeast of Homestead) at 5:05 am on Monday August 24th.

Dr. Bob Sheets was the NHC Director during Andrew and, in my opinion, did an unflappable job guiding the NHC and communicating with emergency managers and the media.  Bob’s efforts saved lives.  I worked the evening shift (4:00 pm to midnight) at the NHC the week before Andrew struck Florida.  I didn’t want to chance not being able to get to work on Monday due to debris blocking roads, so I took my sleeping bag into the office and planned to spend Sunday night at NHC after getting off shift.  I found a room near to where the HAM radio operators were set up and tried to rest a little.  Just as I lay down, a window blew out in the office next door (even with our hurricane shutters in place).  I remember thinking that wasn’t supposed to happen, and I gave up on trying to sleep.

At 4:54 am, we heard a loud noise as we lost our radar imagery.  The winds had become so strong that the radar dish tumbled down from its mount on the roof.  Our two large satellite antennas behind the NHC were shredded.  Fortunately, our backup power continued to function and we had backups for both the radar and satellite imagery.  However, the air conditioning units on top of the building were damaged which meant that it got hot inside the NHC given all the computers and media lights.

We could see that there was considerable damage at and around the NHC.  We also knew that the eyewall of Andrew where the strongest winds occurred passed to the south of the NHC where, we estimated, about half of the staff of the NHC and co-located Miami Weather Forecast Office (WFO) had homes and families.  We knew that some people had likely died in this hurricane.  NHC and Miami WFO forecasters had to stay focused on the job at hand because Andrew was still a major hurricane and headed toward Louisiana.  NHC forecasters posted a Hurricane Watch for portions of the northern Gulf coast including Louisiana at 9:00 am on the Monday morning that Andrew struck South Florida followed by a hurricane warning for Louisiana later that afternoon.

Like many colleagues, I was unable to contact my family at home because the power and telephone lines were out.  Later that day, a friend drove by my home and called in on her car phone.  I asked how my family was and I was so relieved and thankful when she said “they were all outside and looked like they were fine.”  I asked how my house looked and she responded something like “well, it is not too bad” but I couldn’t help but hear concern in her voice.  And then I asked how my trees looked and she responded “What trees?”  I knew I had a problem.  I finally made it home that Monday evening before sunset by driving slowly and with difficulty around debris and large highway signs that were downed on U.S. 1 and SR 874 and around downed power lines as I got closer to my neighborhood.  Many street signs were down and I honestly didn’t know exactly where I was until I saw some stunned neighbors and asked them where my house was.  My shutters had withstood the winds of Andrew but I lost most of my roof shingles and tar paper on the east side of my house.  I asked my kids to go get a ladder so that I could get up on the roof and get an idea of the damage before it got dark.  My kids all just smiled and one of them said “Dad, you don’t need a ladder.”  They took me around to the side of the house where they walked me up the trunk of a large tree that had fallen on my house from a neighbor’s yard.

I can’t even begin to complain about the damage to my house in Kendall given how much worse it was to the south of us.  Our home was near the outer edge of Andrew’s northern eyewall.  The outer edge was not nearly as bad as the inner edge.  Still, we finally moved into a mobile home at the urging of our insurance adjuster and didn’t move back into our repaired home until July 1993.  I remember one of the NHC satellite meteorologists who used to have a house in Country Walk.  He told us that he was “homeless” after losing his house.  Many people at the NHC would spend months getting their home repaired or rebuilt.

Final Thoughts

Andrew will be remembered as an intense Category 5 hurricane.  But it is important to understand that it was a small Category 5 hurricane.  The core of Andrew with its strongest winds struck the southern part of Miami-Dade County.  This core did not directly strike Miami Beach, downtown Miami, the Port of Miami, Miami International Airport, or the Brickell financial district.  A track shifted only slightly to the north by 15 to 20 miles would most assuredly have caused even greater damage.  And because Andrew was so small, the storm surge was limited in areal extent.  The maximum value of storm tide (the sum of storm surge plus astronomical tide) in Andrew was 16.9 feet measured at the Burger King International Headquarters.  If Andrew had been a larger hurricane, both the areal coverage of wind and storm surge damage would have been greater.  The Great Miami Hurricane of 1926, the Lake Okeechobee Hurricane of 1928, and the South Florida Hurricane of 1947 were all Category 4 hurricanes but were substantially larger than Andrew.  I don’t want to do or say anything to minimize the unacceptable loss of life and tremendous damage caused by Andrew, but as bad as Andrew was, I can assure you that it was not “The Big One.”

The Awesome Power of Hurricanes

Brian Mackey, Scientist
WeatherPredict Consulting, Inc.

Hurricane Andrew struck South Florida on what was to be the first day of my senior year of high school in 1992.  I was living in Palm Beach County at the time, and although the core of the storm stayed well south of my location, it was close enough to give us all quite a scare.  Looking back on the event 20 years later, I now realize how unprepared we all were that day for a category 5 hurricane.  It was a monster, and we did not truly understand its severity until news helicopters discovered the considerable devastation while flying over southern Dade County.  I remember the droves of volunteers steaming into the area, hardly knowing where they were at, as street signs were missing and stop lights were out.  The zoos and parks were not immune to the destruction as well, and I recall helping to clean up Monkey Jungle one weekend as part of a school trip.  This storm was a prime example of the awesome power of hurricanes.

Prior to Andrew, I already knew that I wanted to major in meteorology at the university level.  This event certainty did not take away from this desire, and in fact, it only strengthened my interest and determination to study tropical cyclones.  I remain optimistic that the state of the science will progress further so that we can more clearly understand and model intensity changes and provide even better short-term warnings with the necessary lead time.

Andrew Strengthens and Helps Direct a Career Path

Dr. Eric Williford: Senior Scientist,
Head of Operational Forecasting, WeatherPredict Consulting, Inc.

During Andrew, I was in the midst of a Ph.D. program at Florida State University with Dr. T. N. Krishnamurti and was focusing on extra-tropical cyclone development, especially in the Gulf of Mexico.  While Andrew wasn’t the determining factor in why I became interested in tropical meteorology, it did surprise me and others in our lab.  How did a small tropical system, nearly dissipating in the open Atlantic, become such a tenacious powerhouse and impact Florida and Louisiana so significantly?  Andrew did entice me to get more involved in tropical modeling and prediction, especially with regard to how to improve forecasting skills.   I worked on numerical modeling and real-time prediction efforts and switched to tropical cyclone prediction for my dissertation topic.  From these and other studies, our research group was approached by RenaissanceRe while involved with a study at Risk Prediction Initiative in Bermuda.  In collaboration with science leaders at RenaissanceRe, we created a state-of-the-art real-time forecasting platform via a five year research grant between RenaissanceRe and Dr. Krishnamurti’s lab at Florida State.

From these efforts, we developed the Superensemble forecasting technology to improve forecasting skill.  This ultimately led to the start of Weather Predict (and eventually, WeatherPredict Consulting Inc., a U.S. affiliate of Renaissance Re Holdings, Ltd.)  We today still strive to improve our understanding of risk, including understanding tropical cyclone impacts and increasing forecasting skill, especially with the challenging intensity forecasts.  For the past 10 seasons, WPC has provided our real-time North Atlantic, North Eastern Pacific, and North Central Pacific tropical cyclone forecasts to NHC/NOAA to support their forecasting efforts, and we are proud to contribute to their mission of protecting life and property for our country.

The Influence of Andrew

Craig Tillman
President, WeatherPredict Consulting Inc.

When you look at the science of natural catastrophe risk, Hurricane Andrew in many ways was pivotal in focusing scientists, engineers and risk managers towards gaining a better physical understanding of this risk.  When I look back, it’s interesting how much our ability to characterize the potential impacts of extreme weather events has matured.   Andrew’s destruction motivated this – it affected my own professional concentrations and at WeatherPredict, many of our scientists can also point to the influence of the Andrew catastrophe on their careers.

What is commonplace today could not even be considered at the time of Andrew.   Our scientists now have the ability to investigate tropical cyclones through the use of numerical weather prediction models that capture the physics of these natural systems as they traverse across the ocean and make landfall on our coastlines – and they can do this a million times over to explore the complete distribution of outcomes possible.

The experience of Andrew motivated the development of stronger building codes in Florida, and indeed, Florida has become a proving ground for what stronger building codes could achieve.  Through the experience and leadership of Miami-Dade County in establishing some of the best building codes for severe winds, and the subsequent success of those building codes in the Florida hurricanes of 2004 and 2005, we now have the evidence in real savings that can motivate other states to follow suit.  Going forward from here, the focus needs to be on implementation and enforcement of those strong codes.

And the science of building stronger has been taken even further in recent years.  There are now several full-scale testing laboratories in the Southeast that can test actual buildings in the realistic conditions of hurricane winds and rain.  It started with the establishment of the RenaissanceRe Wall of Wind at Florida International University, but has perhaps reached its full potential with the Research Center of the Institute for Business and Home Safety as well as a new Wall of Wind at Florida International University.  We don’t need to wait for another Andrew to devastate a city to understand what can be improved in our building stock – we are using these full scale testing laboratories to identify the best building and mitigation practices going forward.   Through numerical simulation and physical testing laboratories, a closer integration of meteorology and wind-engineering has increased our understanding of the risk of hurricane catastrophes.  Because the robust foundation now exists, the effects of climate change can be explored.

In my own career, first as a catastrophe risk consultant, then providing insurance coverage for properties at risk, and now leading an elite team of scientists, a significant evolution has been the integration of the science into business decisions.  More than ever before, the statistics of hurricane risk are communicated directly to corporate boards.  Because this risk is better quantified, managers and property owners are now making investments towards resilience in the face of this continuing threat to our coastal states.   At WeatherPredict we are acutely aware of the positive impacts that natural catastrophe science can have on making communities more resilient.  We recognize the unique privilege we have in working on problems that affect so many people and of course this drives our passion for connecting our capabilities to real world decisions.

Game Changer

After an intermission necessitated by Hurricanes Isaac, Leslie and Michael, today, we resume our Hurricane Andrew series with a post from Steve Weinstein, SVP RenaissanceRe Holdings Ltd. and Chairman, RenaissanceRe Risk Sciences Foundation.  Mr. Weinstein shares how Andrew changed everything from building codes to risk management to insurance claims handling and led to the creation of RenaissaneRe a business that has a mission to “better serve clients and at-risk communities.”

When Hurricane Andrew made landfall in 1992, our company, RenaissanceRe Holdings Ltd., did not yet exist.  Nor did many of the large, technically sound, publicly traded market participants we compete with today.  Management teams in our industry tended to believe that even extreme natural catastrophes were unlikely to give rise to more than $2 billion or so of insured losses; and accordingly, since the exposures were not deemed to be material, boards of directors and other key stakeholders of primary insurers and ultimate insureds devoted relatively little time to oversight of natural catastrophe risk.  The science of catastrophe modeling was in its infancy, and the art of deploying models for risk management was nascent.

Andrew, and twenty subsequent years of consistent innovation, changed all that.

By the summer of 1993, RenaissanceRe was in business, with a mission to deploy recent innovations in portfolio optimization, catastrophe modeling, dynamic risk management and other emergent sciences to better serve clients and at-risk communities.  In particular, we believed from our outset that a commitment to developing and utilizing expertise in risk modeling and analysis would help us both to underwrite risk effectively and offer fairly priced, consistent capacity for some of the world’s most perilous regions, including the US Southeast.  We were quickly joined by numerous competitors, some well-established firms, and by many new entrants, principally in the growing reinsurance market hub of Bermuda.

After the 9/11 tragedy and the large storms of 2004/2005, including Hurricane Katrina, new waves of capital and new competitors emerged to support catastrophe-exposed and other risks.    Many, if not all, of these competitors have embraced stochastic modeling, hazard-oriented risk analysis, and portfolio management techniques to enhance risk management and client service.   Successful modeling firms, university and government projects, and a generation of professionals have fostered accelerating innovation and enhancement of catastrophe modeling and risk perception.

But it is the depth of commitment to catastrophe risk analysis and to fostering a companywide risk management culture at RenaissanceRe that we believe is unique; it is both deep and broad across our organization.  Dedicated efforts to increase awareness about risk mitigation and encourage resiliency through the widespread adoption of effective mitigation strategies have been key components of RenaissanceRe research initiatives from our outset.  Among our other initiatives, in 2004 we partnered with the International Hurricane Research Center at Florida International University – not far from where Andrew made landfall – to develop a revolutionary testing facility: the RenaissanceRe Wall of Wind. Fully operational since 2007, the RenaissanceRe Wall of Wind generates 125 mph winds and associated rain to which full-scale structures can be subjected, and has served as a model for other important industry-supported initiatives.

In 2008, in partnership with FLASH®, State Farm® and Simpson Strong-Tie, we launched our award-winning attraction at INNOVENTIONS at Epcot® at the Walt Disney World® Resort.  Since its opening, “StormStruck: The Tale of Two Homes™”, an interactive exhibit combining “edutainment” with the exhilaration of experiencing what it might feel like to be in a severe storm, has communicated to millions of attendees cost-effective steps they might take to make their homes more resilient to windstorms.

Very few events can truly be called “game changers.”  But even with two decades of hindsight, Hurricane Andrew was indeed just that.  From building codes to modeling, from risk management to reinsurance, from construction to claims handling, no field of endeavor touched by Andrew was unchanged by it.  At RenaissanceRe, as we plan for our next two decades, we remain more committed than ever to working with clients, at-risk communities, policy-makers, academic experts and other interested parties to further develop ever more effective approaches to managing the increasing risks of hurricanes and other natural catastrophes.