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
made almost no changes in intensity prediction," he said.
After the 2004 season, he said, the NOAA started experimenting with using P-3 aircraft equipped with Doppler radar — the same technology police use to track speeders — to improve intensity measurements.
"The radar detects the motion of rain drops in the cone, and we can get a pretty good depiction of the winds," Franklin said. "We think we can improve intensity forecasts, but it's a little early to quantify."
After Andrew, said FEMA employee John Gonzales, "everybody showed up wanting to do some work, but nobody knew where to go or what to do."
As a result, he said, the state adopted a mutual aid agreement that spelled out who's responsible for what.
Tom Daly, St. Lucie County director of Public Safety and Communications, was working in a 911 center during Andrew and said the government had trouble getting emergency supplies, moving them into the disaster area and coordinating all of the agencies doing relief work.
Now, he said, the state has contracts with vendors that can provide emergency supplies quickly, and a large staging area near Orlando stocked with emergency supplies.
"Now, there are plans: for getting things like forklifts, for traffic flow, for moving equipment and people," he said.
One critical difference is that officials can now track supplies heading into a disaster area.
"Back then, you'd have them say, 'Seven to 10 days,' and you'd hope they got there," Daly said.
Federal emergency management procedures established by presidential directive after the 9/11 attacks also increased coordination between different states and levels of government, said Martin County Emergency Management Agency Director Debra McCaughey.
"Since Andrew, we have the National Response Framework that came after 9/11," she said. "It works in all hazards and improves coordination."
With the national plan, said McCaughey, emergency management workers in different states and at different levels of government are required to comply with the same federal standards.
"We all work on the same page now," said McCaughey. "It would be a much more unified effort if something like (Hurricane Andrew) were to happen again."
Florida also changed the way it handles hurricane evacuations after Andrew, setting up a protocol for coordination between different counties and working with gas suppliers to make sure gas stations along the evacuation corridors go to maximum capacity before a storm.
And after more than two million Floridians clogged Interstate 95 and Florida's Turnpike fleeing Hurricane Floyd in 1999, the Florida Department of Transportation devised plans to reverse traffic flow on portions of major highways during evacuations so more lanes would carry evacuees out of the path of the storm.
Reverse-lane operations require an order form the governor's office and haven't been used yet in Florida, said Department of Transportation representative Barbara Kelleher, but the state conducts training exercises for them every year.
Indian River County Emergency Management Director John King said the changes in management procedure helped during the busy 2004-2005 hurricane season.
Help from outside the county — law enforcement officers, health care workers, utility workers, water and food — arrived much faster after those storms, he said.
"In 1992, the Florida Legislature took a real hard look at some of the things that were accomplished well and some that needed improvements, and they put some legislative teeth into helping it work better," King said.
"It wasn't just Andrew. A lot of storms came after Andrew. But that was probably the turning point for both the federal and state legislature to say, 'We need to make some significant improvements.'"
HURRICANE ANDREW FAST FACTS
Storm rating: Category 5
Top sustained winds: 165 mph
Storm surge: 17 feet near landfall
Florida landfall: 5:05 a.m. Aug. 24, 1992 in Miami-Dade County
Formed: Aug. 14, 1992 off the west coast of Africa as a tropical wave
EFFECTS IN U.S.
People killed: 23
Left homeless: 250,000
Damages: $26.5 billion in damage ($25.5 billion in Florida, $1 billion in Louisiana)
ANDREW CATEGORY CHANGE
Hurricane Andrew was considered a Category 4 storm until the National Hurricane Center declared it a Category 5 in 2002 after re-evaluating the wind speed data.
Andrew is one of only three Category 5 hurricanes on record to strike the continental U.S. The others were the Florida Keys Labor Day Hurricane in 1935 and Hurricane Camille, which made landfall in Mississippi in 1969.