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What if Hurricane Andrew hit South Florida today?
Picture Hurricane Andrew churning with devastating power, only this time it is aiming right down Broward Boulevard. With ferocious gusts up to 180 mph, it pounds Port Everglades, the Swap Shop and Sawgrass Mills Mall. It chews up the Elbo Room, Stranahan House and the Broward Mall. Kiss the Pompano Fishing Pier goodbye.
By the time the compact system departs the area, it has cut a 30-mile swath of destruction, leveling tens of thousands of homes and structures -- and causing up to $70 billion in damages, or almost double that of its 1992 hit.
While this scenario is hypothetical, emergency managers and hurricane forecasters say it could be very real.
"If we see this, we're in a heap of trouble," says Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami-Dade County.
Ten years after Andrew crushed much of south Miami-Dade County, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel asked Eqecat Inc., a company that assesses the potential for catastrophic damage, to explore what would happen if the same storm were to hit downtown Miami, Fort Lauderdale or Boynton Beach dead-on today.
The company, based in Houston, took a profile of Andrew's wind speeds, laid it out in grids and fed it into a computer model. The computer then made adjustments for the curve of the coastline and spread this profile -- technically called a wind field -- across each of the three counties.
The bulk of all three counties would be subjected to wind gusts up to 160 mph. Structures north of the eye and along the coast would be slashed with gusts up to 180 mph.
Because Andrew was so compact and fast-moving, neighborhoods and landmarks far to the west still would feel the brunt force of the storm. This includes the Mall at Wellington Green in Palm Beach County and the Coral Springs Center for the Arts, both of which would feel gusts up to 160 mph.
Because the shoreline is so built up, property damage would amount to $48.2 billion with a direct hit on Miami; $40.2 billion with a Fort Lauderdale hit; and $29.8 billion with a Boynton Beach hit, according to Eqecat, which projects potential damages for insurance companies. Local officials, however, estimate the damages would be nearly double that amount.
If the eye roughly followed Broward Boulevard in Broward County, the strongest gusts would hit Hillsboro Inlet, Sea Ranch Lakes, Lauderdale-by-the-Sea and Fort Lauderdale's Galleria Mall.
If the eye rolled ashore near Boynton Beach Boulevard, the strongest winds would hit the mobile home community of Briny Breezes, the Ritz-Carlton Palm Beach in Manalapan, several high-end marinas, the St. Andrews Golf Club and the Lake Worth pier.
If the core plowed over downtown Miami, the strongest gusts would whip Bal Harbour, Surfside, Sunny Isles Beach, Golden Beach, the Golden Glades interchange, Aventura Mall, North Miami Beach and Turnberry Isle.
After studying these scenarios, emergency managers squirmed.
"The economic impact would be huge," said Tony Carper, Broward's director of emergency management. "You'd cripple the tourism industry for months, if not years."
"It'd be just like having a war," said Charles Lanza, Miami-Dade's emergency management director. "This is the population core of the county."
Panic and devastation
Hurricane Andrew, which struck South Florida on Aug. 24, 1992, was the costliest hurricane to hit the United States. Although figures vary, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says the storm left up to $40 billion in damages in 2002 dollars.
The vast majority of that figure, 93 percent, was in Florida. The remainder was in Louisiana, as Andrew proceeded to hit the Gulf Coast, west of New Orleans.
Despite the amount of devastation, Andrew traversed a relatively sparse area. Although it spun over Homestead and neighborhoods such as Perrine, Cutler Ridge, Country Walk and Kendall, those areas were interspersed with rural lands.
Thus, it created "islands of destruction," Carper said.
But today, with a hit virtually anywhere in central Miami-Dade, Broward or Palm Beach counties, the storm would buzz-saw through continuous and intense development, new housing subdivisions, long-established neighborhoods, commercial districts and condo communities.
Pondering the prospect of another Andrew, operators of some of South Florida's best-known landmarks cringed.
"Panic!" said Barbara Keith, executive director of the historic Stranahan House, a public museum on the bank of the New River in Fort Lauderdale. "You lose a Stranahan House, and you can't replace it. I just hope and pray this doesn't happen."
"Devastation," uttered Rose Allen, marketing director at the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens in Delray Beach. "The gardens would be lost. It would be millions of dollars to rebuild."
"No thank you!" said Lisa Cole, spokeswoman for the oceanfront Fountainbleau Hilton on Miami Beach, where the ballroom once served as a storm shelter for beach residents. "I don't wish that kind of devastation on anybody."
After experiencing Andrew's wrath firsthand, with thousands of trees uprooted and animals displaced, Miami Metrozoo officials don't want a repeat. But they said Andrew might have been a blessing in disguise -- because the zoo replanted 7,000 trees and rebuilt.
"In some ways, we call Andrew, `St. Andrew,'" said spokesman Ron Magill. "It's much better today, but we certainly don't want another hurricane through here."
New crop of problems
Emergency managers emphasize a storm with the strength of Andrew would pose an entanglement of problems, the likes of which most of South Florida has never seen.
Among their gravest concerns: The storm would inspire a mass exodus that would grind traffic on all major roadways to a halt.
Helene Wetherington, assistant director of Palm Beach County emergency management, said that almost 2 million people might attempt to leave South Florida.
"We simply don't have the transportation infrastructure to move that many people," she said.
For that reason, she and all other emergency managers implore residents not to leave their homes unless they are in mandatory evacuation zones or unless absolutely necessary -- in which case, they shouldn't go far.
"Everyone you ask, they say, `I'm going to get the hell out of Dodge. I'm going to drive to Orlando,'" she said. "But they're not going to make it to Orlando. The roads are going to be full."
On the other hand, Carper said, anyone who doesn't evacuate from storm surge zones is "making a potential life-threatening mistake."
Carper said trees, sand and high water would block streets, thus hampering the emergency response.
Cleanup and recovery would be overwhelming, he said. His division has run models that show a hurricane would generate 35 million cubic yards of debris, an amount equal to 1.75 million garbage trucks full.
"Where do you put it all?" he said.
But the real problem would be the overall rebuilding effort, he said.
"In any event, if a hurricane hits a major metropolitan area, that's a national disaster. You'll need a huge infusion of state and federal money to help," he said.
Lanza said his biggest fear is a storm similar to Hurricane Floyd could hit Miami-Dade. Whereas Andrew was compact, had relatively little rain and was fast moving, Floyd, which hit North Carolina with 115 mph winds in 1999, was huge, slow and wet.
"The water would remain high possibly for weeks," he said. "That's bad."
Officials of the National Hurricane Center and its research arm would prefer not to speculate on the specific potential destruction another Andrew would leave behind.
One problem is they say they cannot be certain of the storm's wind field structure.
However, Mark Powell, a research scientist under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has drafted his own estimate of Andrew's wind profile and said Eqecat's wind field "roughly" corresponds.
Powell, considered a leading authority on Andrew's winds, said, oddly, the system's strongest gusts did not necessarily produce the most damage.
"Our analysis shows the highest winds were north of the eye. But surveys show the worst damage was south of the highest winds," he said.
Powell said the longer a structure is subjected to strong winds, the more damage it is likely to sustain.
And, he said it is the turbulent sequence of lulls and gusts that produces a ratcheting effect and ultimately causes a structure to break down.
"This causes a structure to move back and forth," he said.
Bob Sheets, director of the National Hurricane Center when Andrew hit, said his staff estimated the storm had sustained winds of about 145 mph, based on the amount of damage it created. On Wednesday, the center upgraded the estimate of those winds to 165 mph.
Sheets notes that Andrew's damage was inconsistent. The storm was able to knock down sturdy buildings but left flimsy homes standing.
For that reason, initially, some thought the real damage from Andrew was caused by tornadoes. But Sheets, now a consultant, said he has no evidence of any tornadoes.
"Perhaps there was one, and that basically was it," he said.
More so, he said, Andrew proved the most vulnerable parts in a home or building are its doors and windows.
Protecting huge walls of glass from hurricane-force winds and flying debris has been a priority for the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Fort Lauderdale and the Kravis Center in downtown West Palm Beach.
Federal grants helped the Broward Center in 1999 replace 15,000 square feet of glass with hurricane-impact glass. The Kravis Center recently put special film on more than 9,000 square feet of glass to make it stronger.
"Now if it's hit, it shatters, but it won't break," said Linda Potenza, the Broward Center's spokeswoman.
"I think we're pretty safe," said Bill Underwood, spokesman for the Kravis Center.
Still, few buildings would escape unscathed, said Herbert Saffir, who helped develop the Saffir-Simpson Scale used by the National Hurricane Center to rate the strength of storms.
"You're looking at a tremendous amount of damage from this storm," said Saffir, a structural engineer in Coral Gables. "If the building was built before Andrew, it certainly won't be as strong as those designed after Andrew under new building codes."
Small but strong
For the past 10 years, hurricane officials and emergency managers have used Andrew as a prime example of why people need to prepare early for hurricane season -- and why residents should always monitor tropical systems.
Four days before it hit Florida, Andrew deflated from a tropical storm to a mushy mess in the mid-Atlantic, then rapidly grew into a powerful Category 5 cyclone.
Even then, forecasters thought the storm might swerve north out to sea.
Only a day before landfall, when it became clear that South Florida was in trouble, forecasters still were unable to narrow down where it might hit.
They posted the first hurricane warning for South Florida only 20 hours before the strike.
Today, despite steady improvements to hurricane forecast tracks, officials at the National Hurricane Center say if another Andrew approached, the amount of warning time wouldn't be that much greater.
So officials ask residents to assume a storm anywhere in their vicinity has the potential to hit their coast -- and to remember that a hurricane can cause great destruction on either side of its path.
That would be true even for a small storm, said Mayfield, the hurricane center director.
"Remember, Andrew was a very small hurricane -- they don't get much smaller -- but very strong."
Staff Researcher John Maines contributed to this report.
Ken Kaye can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-385-7911.
Robin Benedick can be reached at email@example.com or 954-385-7914.