The Nineties in America
Identification: The most destructive natural disaster to strike the United States in the twentieth century
Date: August 24, 1992
The destruction caused by Hurricane Andrew awakened people in coastal areas to the dangers hurricanes pose and resulted in a revision of building codes and preventive tactics in hurricane-prone areas.
Andrew, the first named hurricane of the 1992 hurricane season, began on August 14 as a tropical wave off Africa's west coast. It moved west at about twenty-five miles per hour and on the seventeenth was declared the first tropical storm of the season. By August 22, Andrew, having gained energy as it passed over warm ocean waters, erupted as a hurricane whose wind gusts exceeded 170 miles per hour. The following day it became a category 5 hurricane, the highest category ascribed to such storms, with storm surges of almost twenty feet.
By August 22, forecasters realized that a killer storm was headed for South Florida, which, remarkably, had not experienced a hurricane for the past twenty-five years, a quarter decade in which its population more than doubled. Andrew reached the Bahamas late on August 23 and, in passing over land, lost some of its intensity, its winds dropping to 145 miles per hour. As it proceeded west, however, it passed over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, which increased its intensity to over 170 miles per hour.
Before sunrise on August 24, the storm made a direct hit on Homestead, Florida, with sustained winds estimated at 165 miles per hour. On that day, Hurricane Andrew wrought more destruction than any natural disaster in U.S. history to date, and it was not through yet, continuing its course northwest to hit the Louisiana coast.
The Human Toll
Hurricane Andrew was directly responsible for fifteen deaths in South Florida, with twenty-five additional deaths related to the hurricane occurring after the storm's initial assault. It is difficult to estimate the psychological trauma that ensues after one lives through a storm as violent and terrifying as this one. Even years after the disaster, many people who lived through the storm in Florida and in coastal Louisiana suffered from severe post-traumatic stress. As the storm raged, people hunkered down in their houses, usually in small, confined areas like bathrooms, hallways, or closets. They were completely at the mercy of the winds and rising waters caused by the storm. This feeling of helplessness left many traumatized for years after the disaster.
So great was the fear engendered in those who survived the storm that over 100,000 of them did not return to the places where they had lived prior to the hurricane. Whole families were virtually wiped out financially by the storm's destruction. Over 250,000 residents of South Florida were homeless after Hurricane Andrew.
The Economic Toll
The overall estimated cost of the damage Hurricane Andrew caused exceeded $30 billion in South Florida and another $1 billion in Louisiana. In 2007 dollars, this would come to over twice the stated amounts. No previous disaster had cost the United States more in damages.
In south Dade County, over 82,000 businesses were wiped out or damaged so severely that they had to suspend operations for long periods after the storm. Insurance adjusters could not keep up with the flood of claims that resulted from the hurricane, and considerable controversy developed over whether the damage done to residences and businesses was the result of water damage and flooding or wind damage. Many insurance policies did not cover flooding, and it was difficult to prove whether wind or water had caused the damage on which policyholders sought settlements. Nine major insurers became insolvent following the storm.
In Dade County, 63,000 of the county's 528,000 residences were completely destroyed, and another 110,000 were severely damaged. Nine of the county's public schools were completely destroyed and another twenty-three were so heavily damaged that they could not immediately resume operation. In an area with many mobile home parks, only one percent of the mobile homes survived the storm.
The hurricane wiped out much of the agricultural production in the areas affected. The tourist industry on which much of South Florida is dependent was also greatly diminished. The storm's ecological damage was notable. Century-old coral reefs off the Florida coast were wholly destroyed.
Hurricane Andrew was a wake-up call for residents of South Florida and coastal Louisiana, the areas in the United States most affected by the hurricane's destruction. Serious deficiencies in construction were discovered as whole neighborhoods were swept away in the wake of the storm.
As a result, many reputable builders drastically improved their construction practices even before they were called upon legally to bring about such improvements. It was not until a decade after the hurricane struck that Florida lawmakers enacted legislation imposing stringent statewide building codes upon builders. Also, considerable attention was given to developing early warning systems and establishing escape routes for those in the path of impending storms.
Emanuel, Kerry. Divine Wind: The History of and Science of Hurricanes. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. A fine, well-illustrated study of hurricanes, with special attention given to Hurricane Andrew in chapter 31.
Lovelace, John K. Storm-Tide Elevations Produced by Hurricane Andrew Along the Louisiana Coast, August 25-27, 1992. Baton Rouge, La.: U.S. Geological Survey, 1994. An account of how Hurricane Andrew continued to grow as it crossed South Florida and struck the Louisiana coast, leaving considerable devastation.
Mann, Philip H., ed. Lessons Learned from Hurricane Andrew: A Conference Sponsored by Florida International University. Miami: Florida International University Press, 1993. Valuable for the suggestions its contributors make for coping with future hurricanes.
Provenzo, Eugene F., Jr., and Asterie Baker Provenzo. In the Eye of Hurricane Andrew. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002. A firsthand account of what it was like to live through Hurricane Andrew, including information about survival and rebuilding after the storm.
Sheets, Bob, and Jack Williams. Hurricane Watch: Forecasting the Deadliest Storms on Earth. New York: Penguin Books, 2001. Sound overall coverage with valuable information about how to forecast hurricanes.
R. Baird ShumanSee Also
Global warming debate; Natural disasters; Oklahoma tornado outbreak; Perfect Storm, the; Storm of the century.
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