Filed Under:Claims, Education & Training

Historic Loss Series: Miami’s Big ‘Andrew’

One Storm's Aftermath and The Lessons We Learn

The June 1978 issue of The Claimsman, the South Florida Claims Association’s newsletter, featured 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.” The spread 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.

I wrote an article in that issue called “A Cry of ‘Wolf’?” There, I suggested that too many citizens were complacent. Because a hurricane had not hit Miami in decades, these citizens thought it would not happen­—at least in their lifetimes.

No hurricane struck in 1978. In fact, no hurricane struck until August 24, 1992—but when it did, it was nothing like the editor of The Claimsman could have dreamt possible. Andrew was just “a puny tropical blow that looked like it might fall apart,” wrote John Dorschner of the Miami Herald in “The Hurricane That Changed Everything,” one of the key articles in the Herald’s 160-page book on the storm called The Big One.

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.”

A few concerned Miamians visited the supermarkets to stock up, just in case. Many were debating whether to stay and ride out whatever Andrew was, while others decided to head north and inland. Forty-eight schools and other buildings became emergency shelters, many to the north of the city. By midnight Sunday, only about 15 National Hurricane Center staffers were on duty.

But by 12:13 a.m. Monday, NHC Director Bob Sheets advised, “Looks more and more like it’s coming right across South Dade.” By 3 a.m. the winds were up to 140 miles per hour, 40 miles east of Miami. But by 4:28 a.m. Monday, Sheets said, “the eye-wall was entering southern Biscayne Bay. At 4:30 a.m. dispatchers ordered all police and fire personnel off the streets.”

Broken Wind Gauge

The storm hit south of the City of Miami, and the worst damage was south of Coral Gables and South Miami. Kendall Drive, a major highway, was a border between total devastation and mild damage. Apartment buildings on Kendall that faced south had the fronts torn off, while the rear portions had no damage. Virtually every dwelling south of Kendall was damaged or destroyed, all the way to Homestead Air Force Base, where F-16s were damaged. Trees were leveled, roofs torn off and blasted to bits, blown hither and yon. Fortunately, Homestead Nuclear Power Plant sustained only minor damage.

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.

Commercial buildings fared no better; store windows were blown out, debris blasted through the structures and many collapsed. Frame structures and mobile homes were ripped to shreds. Pets wandered about, as disoriented as their owners. Trees were flattened as if pushed over in a straight line by a bulldozer.

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.

Merchandise was in short supply; few people had transportation to get north to buy anything, and few roads were unclogged enough for use. Profiteers arrived, selling generators for $1,500 that they purchased for $1,200.

The surprising aspect of Andrew was the lack of flooding beyond the storm surge at the very edge of the coast. Homes with docks found their vessels on land, washed ashore and damaged. Dinner Key Marina and the Matheson Hammock Marina suffered severe damage to yachts and cruisers. At the Tamiami Airport, jets and propeller aircraft were piled on top of each other—90% of them were destroyed, along with the tower. Had the storm hit further north, marine and aircraft damage would have been far greater. 

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.

The cost was in excess of $20 billion, and the response by the insurance industry and independent adjusting firms was immediate, with adjusters arriving from all over the country to help settle claims.

Was Andrew the worst hurricane ever? It was, at that time, the most expensive; but compared with deadly storms like Camille, Katrina and Galveston, Miami was lucky. In 1992, Miami was still in the process of absorbing thousands of Cuban refugees following the Mariel Boat Lift, and many lived in the center of the city. Had the storm come ashore even 10 miles further north, thousands could have died.

The insurance industry learns from every catastrophe—and it learned much from Andrew. One lesson learned was the importance of a good building code. While the South Florida Building Code was fairly stringent, beefing it up to help keep roofs on houses in future storms was a consideration. Simple metal straps or nail guns may be efficient, but in a hurricane or tornado they may be insufficient to protect a home’s interior.

Consider what Hugo did to Charleston, or Ivan to Pensacola. Miami got the big storm, but the future could hold even bigger storms. No coastal city can relax its vigilance when Ma Nature decides to pay a visit.

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