Florida's oft-predicted big hurricane finally arrives, after 27 years


CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- For the past three decades, hurricane forecasters have been like the boy who cried wolf. They warned about the big one that would strike Florida, but nobody seemed to listen.

They are crying wolf no more.

As Hurricane Andrew barreled toward the South Florida coastline, it was clear the wolf was knocking on the door.

"This is the culmination of decades of preaching," said Herb Lieb, public affairs officer for the National Hurricane Center. "We've been crusading, sort of Billy Graham style, up and down the coast for decades warning that it will happen and here we are."

After a 27-year drought of severe hurricanes in South Florida, Andrew hit an area that had grown up complacent about its vulnerability to hurricanes.

When Betsy hit southeast Florida in 1965 there were no gleaming glass skyscrapers in downtown Fort Lauderdale or glittering office buildings along Miami's Biscayne Bay. Most of the Gold Coast condominiums that now stretch from Miami to Fort Pierce were just a gleam in the developers' eyes.

So when Betsy, a category 3 storm, hit, damage was $1.42 billion. State officials were predicting up to $15 billion in damage from Andrew.

Andrew's final damage tally seems destined to top the costliest hurricane in history -- Hugo, which in 1989 plowed into the South Carolina coast north of Charleston.

Hugo hit a less populated area, still doing $7 billion worth of damage in and around Charleston.

However, there was one slightly encouraging factor: Andrew is a lot smaller than Hugo, which had tropical force winds that extended for 400 miles. Andrew's tropical storm force winds extend outward up to 105 miles.

Andrew's smaller size "is going to make a tremendous difference to millions of people," Mr. Lieb said.

He said damage is directly proportional to the extent of the wind.

The question now is whether Andrew's resurrection signals the start of another savage cycle of hurricanes.

Forecasters were confident that the big one would eventually come because history has shown that vicious storms come in cycles.

Now, after decades of relatively moderate hurricanes, the cycle may be in full swing.

In 1988 Gilbert, the storm of the century, devastated Jamaica, the Cayman Islands, Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and Texas, causing 300 deaths. A category 5 storm, it had winds of 185 mph and the lowest sea level pressure ever measured in the Western hemisphere. Pressure is the most accurate measure of a storm's strength.

The next year Hugo hit the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, before devastating South Carolina.

Now comes Andrew.

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