Filed Under:Claims, Education & Training

Historic Loss Series: Miami’s Big ‘Andrew’

The Aftermath and Lessons Learned

In its June 1978 issue, The Claimsman, the South Florida Claims Association’s newsletter, had headlines such as “Catastrophe Record Set for 1978 First Quarter,” “Storm Inexperience Will Cause the Death Toll to Rise,” “The Real Flood School,” and “The Life of a Storm-Trooper.” It included photos of prior murderous storms named Camille, Beulah, Donna, Audrey and Hazel. There was an interview with Dr. Neal Frank of the Miami Hurricane Center and quotes from John D. MacDonald’s novel Condominium. The issue also addressed the exclusions in “windstorm and hail” coverage in homeowners’ forms and discussed the National Flood Insurance Act

It showed an NFIP flood-level map of Miami in answer to the question, “If Miami gets a storm this season, what might we expect in terms of flooding?” The answer: “Expect to get your feet wet!” The accompanying map showed water-depth levels of up to 15 feet along the islands and three to four feet in the Miami River valley. South of Kendall Drive showed levels of three to 10 feet of flooding.

As with most Caribbean/Atlantic/Gulf of Mexico hurricanes, Andrew began life as a tropical depression off the west coast of Africa and slowly drifted west/northwest. At one point, it nearly collided with an earlier depression that was headed toward Europe. On Sunday morning, August 23, it was 800 miles east of Miami with winds of only 75 miles per hour, barely hurricane force. The hurricane-hunter plane took a look, but the thought of Andrew hitting Miami was, said Dorschner, “only a vague abstraction.” Yet, from the air, the storm looked “awesome and beautiful.” 

The National Hurricane Center is in a sturdy six-story building in the center of the University of Miami campus, but when the wind hit, the staffers could feel the building sway. One of the staff said he felt seasick. As Dorschner explains: “A dazed reporter asked Sheets, ‘What direction is the building swaying?’ The ordinarily unflappable Sheets came as close as he ever did to losing his cool. ‘I don’t know,’ he snapped. ‘You tell me.’ Moments later there was a large boom. Everyone froze. What was it? The radar suddenly went out. Apparently the radar on the roof had tipped over. At 5:20 a.m. the wind gauge recorded a speed of 164 miles an hour. Then the gauge broke. From that moment on, whatever happened in Dade County was beyond measure.” Winds were estimated to have been around 200 knots (230 miles per hour). 

Many homes built of concrete blocks withstood the wind but shifted on their foundations. They provided little shelter for residents inside, as doors, windows and roofs were blown away. Survivors hid in bathtubs and held on to plumbing to withstand the sucking winds that tore away their shelter. It’s said that homes built by Habitat for Humanity volunteers withstood the wind better than those built by construction companies because the volunteers used twice as many nails in each rafter than carpenters using nail guns. 

I had resided in Coral Gables until 1978, and months after Andrew, I returned to survey the scene. Virtually nothing had been done to clean up the mess. There were no longer street signs standing. The wind had sandblasted paint from houses, and owners or their insurers had spray-painted messages on the walls, including messages of where the owners might be located or whether the insurance company had already inspected. Dorschner described the area as looking like Beirut after the terrorist bombing.

Shelter and Rescue
Before the storm hit only about 20,000 people had moved to shelters, far less than the 75,000 expected. Afterwards, virtually all of those south of Kendall Drive required shelter. Thousands fled northward on the Florida Turnpike. Those South Dade residents who still had an automobile—most had been damaged or destroyed in the storm—packed what they could find and left. President George H.W. Bush flew in to inspect but stayed only briefly. Governor Lawton Chiles received a briefing at the Metro Emergency Management bunker, which could only offer his staff cookies and pickles for breakfast. The National Guard was activated to patrol and protect the area. 

The Lasting Impact of the Storm
Power and phone lines were down throughout South Dade County, and friends and relatives were in a panic trying to reach those who had lived in the destroyed homes. It took days to sort out who was alive and where they had gone. When I visited, one sign read, “Grandma is alive…call Lee.”  Yet only around twenty people were killed directly by the storm, compared with 6,000 in the Galveston, Texas storm in 1900.

The storm demolished 25,000 homes and severely damaged another 50,000; 175,000 people were homeless. 

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