Legacy of Hurricane Andrew is Lessons Learned - 2002-08-28

Ten years ago this week a powerful hurricane swept across South Florida, destroying 25-thousand homes and killing dozens of people. Even today that storm - Hurricane Andrew - remains the costliest weather disaster in U.S. history. But, as the old saying goes: “Every storm has a silver lining.” And the lessons learned from Andrew appear to be just that. George Dwyer has our report.

What meteorologists have learned about storms since Hurricane Andrew has them re-writing science, and re-evaluating Andrew itself.

Category 5 - the worst kind of hurricane – though that wasn’t known at the time.

"The problem was when Andrew hit was every wind measuring device was destroyed. It was like a jigsaw puzzle to figure out how strong the storm was, how strong the winds were, and scientists worked really for years to pull together every piece of information."

Since then, new tools have been developed for those calculations, including measuring devices that can be sent right into a hurricane.

And faster computers to better predict a hurricane's direction. But studying Andrew has also shown how quickly conditions can change.

"Just a few days before, the speculation was that Andrew was going to die, it was getting sheared apart and probably we'd never hear more about Andrew again."

Within 36 hours, though, it was a ferocious hurricane. Andrew had found a fuel pocket in the ocean: deep eddies of warm water that scientists now know can quickly turn a weak hurricane into a killer. Today they still can't predict where those pockets will be.

"One of the my greatest concerns is that people could be preparing for a category 1 hurricane when they go to bed and wake up to find something like Andrew. That really scares me."

They also have discovered more about a hurricane's winds, that they are nastier around high-rise buildings.

"These major hurricanes, especially, between say three and 500 feet, the winds are much stronger than even at the surface."

That’s a worry because so many new oceanfront high-rises have been built since Andrew, all along hundreds of kilometers of coastline. And researchers have learned that hurricane activity is increasing.

Another lesson learned - bad storms can have good ecological consequences.

At Bill Baggs State Park on Key Biscayne just a few minutes from downtown Miami, Hurricane Andrew was a blessing in disguise. Over the last 50 years the park had been overrun by a non-native tree species, the Australian pine. Andrew ripped thousands of these intruders from the ground.

"A year after hurricane Andrew, when all the clearing was done, some people called this a moonscape. It was that barren."

After Andrew, the state of Florida and a coalition of naturalists saw an opportunity to restore the park's the natural environment. Today the place looks much the way it did when the first settlers arrived more than a hundred years ago. But Liz Golden, who manages wildlife at the park, worries that many people have not learned from Andrew.

"The plants and animals have evolved to adapt to these situations, people haven't necessarily. Especially when we try to put in large inflexible structures such as condos and hotels, things that want to stay put. Nature tends to be much more flexible."

While one can still see some of the devastation wrought by the hurricane, much of South Florida's ecosystem from the ocean to the everglades has bounced back.

"The ecosystem is adapted to that and you see after 10 years we have nice growth again from the vegetation. Nature is miraculous.”

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