That’s how long the destructive force of Hurricane Andrew lingered over southern Florida two decades ago, wiping out entire neighborhoods with a force largely unseen before.
The killer storm then moved off to threaten the rest of the Gulf Coast, causing additional devastation in Louisiana and elsewhere. But the rapid and utter obliteration it wrought in such a short time while over the lower portion of the Florida peninsula – flattening entire neighborhoods in minutes – gave rise to new policies and procedures that are still protecting individuals and communities today.
The world was a very different place in late August 1992, when Andrew sat weakly just off the Bahamas. Like people in so many places, residents of South Florida were complacent. The area hadn’t been hit by a major storm since Hurricane Betsy 27 years earlier, and the nation was already almost half-way through hurricane season without its first named storm.
Even if they had been paying close attention, most residents would have been limited in their ability to follow the storm. Few people had their own personal computers in 1992 and the Internet as we know it didn’t really exist yet. Smart phones were the stuff of science fiction. Local news outlets and weather forecasters relied solely on the National Hurricane Center for the latest data, and updates arrived only every few hours by teletype, fax or other similar device.
Overnight, Andrew turned from a lamb to a lion, growing into one of the most potent storms ever. It roared ashore as a Category 5 hurricane and flattened the Miami suburb of Homestead, devastating Homestead Air Force base and causing unimaginable damage. What it did to southern Florida with wind, it later wrought in Louisiana with water, dumping almost a foot of rain on Hammond and causing widespread flooding and destruction.
All told, Hurricane Andrew claimed 44 lives and caused $25.5 billion in damage. In Florida alone, some 600,000 homes and buildings were damaged, up a quarter-million people were left homeless, and an estimated 1.4 million were without power and safe drinking water.
When the immediate shock wore off, a deeper realization set in. No one had truly prepared for a storm like Andrew – few had even imagined a storm like Andrew – so the initial response was largely ineffective. Government leaders had no clear idea how to get help to people who desperately needed everything. There was no plan for what to do with all the debris, and law enforcement was unprepared to prevent rampant looting. Most urgent of all, there was no plan for getting food and water to countless victims whose very survival depended on these life-saving supplies.
For all their horror, though, tragedies often bring out the best in Americans. Soon after the difficult short-term recovery from Hurricane Andrew, emergency response officials went to work developing procedures to improve how the nation prepares for, responds to and recovers from disasters.
Now, 20 years have elapsed – two decades of progress. Building codes in coastal states have been substantially upgraded, starting in the Miami area and then moving throughout states typically targeted by hurricanes. Emergency responders now plan and practice for extreme scenarios once thought impossible. States keep stockpiles of equipment and supplies that can be rapidly deployed to affected areas. Evacuation routes have been revised as officials developed greater understanding of how long it takes for coastal residents to be moved to safety.
Despite all these improvements, perhaps the most important change in public safety since Hurricane Andrew is the ability of Americans to receive up-to-the-minute information about approaching threats. Computer technology has revolutionized storm forecasting and response, with sophisticated computer models that help pinpoint likely storm targets and timeframes. In addition, citizens can get the latest information on their televisions, their computers and their phones, so they can make their preparations accordingly.
Over the years since Andrew, American households have also developed a deeper recognition of how vitally important it is to be prepared. More and more families are developing emergency plans so they will know where to go and what to bring with them when a storm – perhaps the next Andrew – threatens their homes.
The world of emergency readiness was indeed changed forever by Hurricane Andrew 20 years ago. In many ways, the changes are making the public safer, smarter and stronger in protecting themselves against the awesome force of nature’s most powerful storms.