Twenty years ago this month, a behemoth hurricane barreled toward South Florida.
Before it hit forecasters said Hurricane Andrew could make landfall in Martin, St. Lucie or Indian River counties, and Floridians raided the supermarkets for batteries, canned goods and bottled water, shuttering their homes or boarding them up with plywood.
The massive hurricane missed the Treasure Coast, but left a 25-mile-wide arc of battered homes, flooded streets and felled trees and power lines across the southern tip of Florida when it struck on Aug. 24, 1992, ripping away the state's pretenses of safety along with much of Miami-Dade's infrastructure.
In its aftermath, South Floridians cleared debris from roads, covered damaged roofs with tarps and sweltered in homes with no power waiting for help that was often slow to arrive.
That storm, officials said, changed everything: from how homes are designed to how meteorologists track hurricanes and how the government manages emergencies.
BUILDING CODES AND INSPECTIONS
"Hurricane Andrew was a big wake-up call," said Bob Keating, community development director for Indian River County. "The changes over the past 20 years have been enormous."
After the category five storm gutted Homestead and Florida City, the Florida Legislature brought together a panel chaired by former Florida Senate President Philip D. Lewis to study how the state could prepare for another hurricane.
Among the Lewis Committee's recommendations, said Keating, were a statewide building code and tougher inspections to prevent the kind of shoddy construction that came to pieces in Andrew's winds.
"The drive-by inspections that came to light after Hurricane Andrew were an indication that it's not just the code that's important, it's making sure the code is enforced," he said.
John Gonzales, Port St. Lucie's deputy director of public works during Andrew and a current Federal Emergency Management Agency employee, led a team of recovery workers into Miami after the storm hit and saw the result of those lax standards scattered all over the city streets.
"Most of the homes in Cutler Ridge had barrel tile roofs," he said. "They were supposed to be nailed down — and they weren't cemented, or nailed down or anything. They were just placed up there. And they became missiles."
The state adopted the Florida Building Code as its first statewide code in 2002, said Keating, requiring new structures be built to withstand hurricane force winds and have shutters or impact-resistant glass to protect openings.
The effects of building regulations put into place since Andrew, officials said, were visible when hurricanes Frances and Jeanne struck the Treasure Coast in 2004.
"Experience has shown that those code changes really made a difference," Keating said. "The newer construction fared much better, and that was the case with the 2004 hurricanes."
In code amendments in 2010, he said, the state increased the wind speed that buildings need to be designed for — in some areas from 140 mph to 160 mph, and in others from 120 mph or 130 mph to 150 mph.
"Tougher standards went into effect with the Florida Building Code in 2002," he said, "and it's been consistently more rigorous over the past 20 years."
When Andrew struck Florida in 1992, government meteorologists were issuing three-day forecasts with an average track error of about 300 miles, according to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration news release.
Now, hurricane forecasts are longer-range and more accurate.
"The five-day forecast today is as accurate as the three-day forecast was then," National Hurricane Center spokesman Dennis Feltgen said. "Now, in-house, we're experimenting with six- and seven-day forecasts."
NOAA is now three years into a federally-funded program called the Hurricane Forecast Improvement Project, which aims to increase track and intensity predictions 20 percent by 2013.
James Franklin, branch chief of the National Weather Service's Hurricane Specialist Unit, said the program was motivated by the brutal 2004-2005 hurricane season.
"The (Hurricane Forecast Improvement Project) is the first serious application of new money to the hurricane prediction problem in my career," he said, "and I've been with the NOAA for 30 years."
Franklin went through Andrew twice: once in an NOAA P-3 airplane flying through the center of the storm — an experience he said was "like the Tower of Terror ride at MGM, but bumpier" — and once on the ground, huddled with his family in a back room of his new home in Miami while the storm shattered windows he hadn't yet bought shutters for.
Now, he said, meteorologists use NOAA Gulfstream-IV aircraft to drop GPS sensors into the storm.
The sensors send back information used in computer modeling — technology that has improved hurricane track forecasts by 10 to 15 percent.
The difficulty, said Franklin, is predicting a storm's intensity.
"We've cut track error over the past 15 years, but we've