Hurricane Andrew

Hurricane forecasters: Despite advances, Florida still vulnerable to next big one

For all the dramatic strides in technology and forecasting accuracy over the past two decades, if another storm of Hurricane Andrew’s ferocity were to hit South Florida some day, the loss of life and property could well be worse.

Hurricane experts issued that sobering warning during a discussion Tuesday to mark next month’s 20th anniversary of Andrew, the last Category 5 hurricane to strike the United States.

The public alerts will come sooner than the two days South Florida had to scramble for Andrew. The forecast track, sharpened by sophisticated new computer models and an array of high-tech radars, satellites and sensors, will almost certainly pinpoint landfall with more precision (though Andrew wasn’t far off the mark).

But there are simply far more people in harm’s way today — about 5.5 million people along the coast from Key West to Palm Beach County, said Max Mayfield, a former director of the National Hurricane Center. And, if history is any indication, a big chunk of the population will prove complacent, with some 20 percent or more likely to ignore orders to evacuate from the most vulnerable areas.

“That’s still a million people who are not going to do the right thing,” said Mayfield, who now consults on WPLG ABC 10’s hurricane forecasts.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which runs the hurricane center, held the teleconference to detail the history and legacy of Andrew. It struck South Miami-Dade on Aug. 24, 1992, with 165 mph winds, ripping across the southern tip of Florida in just four hours, killing 15 people in Miami-Dade County and causing $26 billion in damage. Until Katrina swamped New Orleans in 2005, Andrew ranked as the costliest weather disaster in American history.

Though they had done a good job of predicting Andrew’s path, the hurricane’s rapid intensification as it crossed the Bahamas caught scientists, and the public, by surprise. The shock of the storm sparked a surge in hurricane research that has reduced track errors by more than half since Andrew — to less than 100 miles, 48 hours out.

“What has happened since Andrew is stunning,” said Frank Marks, director of NOAA’s hurricane research division on Virginia Key.

Far more satellite images and data are available — though some of the aging space gear is in need of replacement. Aboard Hurricane Hunter planes, innovations like Doppler radar and a device called a stepped frequency microwave radiometer that estimates wind speed based on readings of whipped-up sea foam have given researchers better data and understanding of a storm’s inner structure.

An instrument called the hurricane imaging radiometer, HIRAD for short, promises to do the job even better. Scientists hope to see one of the devices, which can see through rain and clouds, on a dedicated weather satellite one day — though shrinking budgets pose a major hurdle.

“The technology is there,” said Rick Knabb, director of the hurricane center in West Miami-Dade. “Funding is one of the big challenges.”

Forecasters are continuing to push for more improvements, Knabb said

As part of a project started in 2009, NOAA hopes to cut current errors in track and intensity forecasts in half in a decade, but scientists acknowledge that the latter part of the hurricane equation remains a major challenge, even 20 years after Andrew. In 2007, for example, Hurricane Umberto unexpectedly grew overnight from a depression into a hurricane before hitting Texas — one of the fastest-developing storms so near land ever recorded.

Since Andrew, the center had added a “cone of uncertainty” to help the public understand risks, added 18 hours to time frames for watches and warnings and, in 2003, extended track forecasts out to five days. Now, Knabb said, forecasters will begin working in-house with six- and seven-day warnings with the hope of eventually offering them to the public if they prove to be reliable. They are also working to improve warnings on storm surge, which claimed many of the estimated 1,400-plus lives lost in Katrina.

Still, Hugh Willoughby, a former director at NOAA’s hurricane research lab and now a research professor at Florida International University, said the extended forecasts instituted since Andrew had helped avert an even worse catastrophe in New Orleans.

Evacuation efforts, prompted by warnings days in advance of Katrina, managed to move 80 percent of the people living in the city’s most flood-prone areas, he said.

Still, the forecasters cautioned that anyone living in a hurricane zone should prepare for the worst. The window of error for a track just 24 hours out remains about 50 miles — a wiggle or a wobble that can have huge repercussions.

Andrew, for instance, was a small storm that struck in one of the least-populated stretches of Southeast Florida. A small jog north would have taken the buzz-sawing eye of Andrew — and a storm surge that hit 16.9 feet near the Deering Estate — across Miami Beach or Miami, where tens of thousands of people had decided to ride out the storm.

“If we don’t remember the past,” said Mayfield, “we’re condemned to repeat it.”