It was Sunday morning when the phone rang in my apartment on Miami Beach, 30 years ago today, I remember answering rather gingerly as I was still hung over from too much tequila the night before.
The foreign editor of the London Times was on the phone. “David, can you send us 500 words on how you prepare for a hurricane,” he said. “Make it colorful. You can write it in the first person.”
Little did I know, but Hurricane Andrew was forming out at sea about 150 miles away bearing down upon us and about to make history as the most destructive – and expensive – storm to hit the United States.
That was my first – and perhaps most important - hurricane lesson: in the summer months in Miami, watch the weather and always be prepared for the worst.
Back then, I was recently married and had just arrived in Miami with my wife and our siamese cat earlier that month, and I was blissfully unaware of the annual Atlantic Hurricane season from June to November.
I’ve lost count of the hurricanes I have covered since then, but I have learned never to let my guard down. This year’s hurricane season is a classic example, currently the least active start in 30 years, with only three storms so far. In fact, for the first time since 1982 there was no named storm in the seven weeks between July 3 and August 24.
But remember 1992 when Andrew was the first named storm of the entire year.
I wrote my story for the editor in London, describing how a letter had been pushed under our door from the condominium announcing a ‘Mandatory Evacuation.’ The hurricane was coming straight at us.
Lesson No 1: don't abandon your cat
In my story I wrote: “ We took a few clothes and food and left for the home of a friend, after saying a sad goodbye to our cat.”
Some readers the next day complained to the paper about its heartless correspondent in Miami who abandoned his pet.
No-one believed me when I tried to explain that the cat had in fact come with us in the end, at the insistence of my wife. We didn’t have internet or email in those days and I didn’t have time to call the paper and update the story.
We ended up evacuating to the home of a friend of a friend in Coral Gables, with a house on a canal. We helped him put up shutters and moor his boat with just enough slack to allow for the storm surge. We also parked our cars in his high-rise office garage, and got ready for Andrew to arrive.
I spent that night broadcasting for the BBC by candlelight after the power went out. My wife took refuge in a closet with the cat.
The night that turned Bryan Norcross into a legend
I had a radio with batteries and spent the evening listening to the calm voice of Miami’s premier TV weather forecaster, Bryan Norcross, who is widely credited with savings many lives during Andrew. His advice to listeners on how to stay safe by taking a mattress to the bathroom and placing its over their heads in the bathtub, is legendary today.
I spoke to Norcross, now aged 71, last week about his recollections about Andrew, the lessons learned and how he managed to stay on air throughout that night.
He explained that after arriving at the NBC affiliate in Miami, WTVJ in 1990, he persuaded the station to preparing for the next big hurricane. “Up until that summer of 1992 we spent two and a half years, making plans, putting in backup systems,” he said. “We were prepared and like no TV station has ever been prepared for a hurricane,” he added.
That involved putting in a dedicated phone line to a radio station to the north in Fort Lauderdale, so the station could continue to be heard if viewers lost their TV signal. Another line went to a radar feed even further north in West Palm Beach in case the Miami radar was blown down (which it did during Andrew).
Its downtown studio was an old, converted 1920’s theater. “I had some concern about the roof so I proposed moving into a storage closet which ended up being called ‘the bunker’”, he told me.
Andrew's 'cone of uncertainty'
Norcross made me feel a bit better about my lack of preparation in 1992 when he told me even the forecasters didn’t take Andrew very seriously at first. Norcross rolled out an early version of the now famous graphic of the ice cream-shaped ‘cone of uncertainty’ that forecasters now use on maps to show the possible track of a storm.
On Wednesday, Andrew was barely holding onto Tropical Storm status with winds of only 40 miles an hour. The National Hurricane Center sent its ‘hurricane hunter’ plane to take a closer look at Andrew on Thursday. “They couldn’t find a closed circulation,” Norcross said, describing the tight spiral that it typical of hurricanes.
By Friday afternoon it was still just a Tropical Storm. Norcross warned viewers, especially boaters, of a wet weekend ahead. That was all.
“I was working that week regularly from the time that it was first named early in the week. I was watching it every day, although I had really no concern. There was no pit in my stomach about ‘Oh my God, this could really be bad’, or anything like that,” he said.
Andrew becomes a hurricane
Only on the Saturday morning did the potential for a major disaster begin to emerge. Barely 48 hours before landfall, Andrew suddenly was a 75-mph hurricane.
“At noon that day is when I went on TV, answering people's questions. By 11pm, it was clear it was coming to Miami-Dade County. “The storm was getting stronger and stronger,” he said. “The odds were by late Sunday that we were going to have a hurricane. Even then we certainly did never envision what happened,” Norcross said, making me feel less guilty about my partying on the Saturday night.
It wasn’t until Sunday evening that Norcross was warning listeners; “ this is going to be the worst natural disaster in the United States.”
What do you tell listeners when the eye of a major hurricane is coming right at them?
While he had been preparing for hurricane season in 1992, Norcross also began to think about what he would tell listeners, assuming that the station was able to stay on air during a hurricane.
Come Monday morning that was a reality. “I began racking my brain to think if you're in your house… what are you going to do with a storm bearing down at two a.m.? and the mattress idea came to me. I said, ‘Okay, here's what I want you to do. I want you to get the mattress off the bed and get under it and ride this thing out”, he said.
It was an idea Norcross says he picked up from an excellent book about Florida’s big 1926 hurricane, by the author LT Reardon.
Norcross broadcast almost non-stop through the night and all-day Monday.
The sounds hurricanes make
At some point during that night, as I listened to Norcross, I began to hear the wind turn into a roar, bending palm trees over. Many have likened that roar to the sound of a train passing over. I could hear the branches of trees begin to crack.
I didn’t need a mattress where I was as the hurricane eye wall passed a few miles south and it was a sturdy house. Thankfully, my phone line never went out. In those days we had old copper wire fixed lines that worked without being plugged into the electricity.
The next day the streets outside were impassable, with a jungle of tree branches and downed power lines.
With the help of an army of neighbors, equipped with saws, we managed to extract ourselves later that day and get back to Miami Beach.
Ice cream in the fridge, the dream of any hurricane survivor
Miraculously, Andrew had gone south of us and our apartment was unscathed. There was electricity, air conditioning and ice cream in the fridge.
I spent the next few weeks traveling down south to the most affected neighborhoods: Homestead, Country Walk, Naranja Lakes and Leisure City. Entire housing estates had been blown away, leaving just the concrete foundations. The death toll would rise to 65 by the time Andrew was gone, destroying 49,000 homes and causing $27 billion in damages.
Norcross stayed on air until 11am the next morning. After taking a nap on the floor he returned to the studio.
One of his strongest memories is of a flattened house where all that was left in the backyard was a turquoise telephone, still attached to the line. “I picked it up and there was a dial tone. Somehow the wire was still working,” he said. “Even in destroyed areas. Usually somebody on the block had a phone that worked. That won't happen and a storm like that,” he added.
Norcross still lives in the Miami area and now works for the Fox Weather channel.
Hurricanes and the vulnerability of modern technology
Ironically, these days Norcross says one of his big concerns is the vulnerability of modern digital technology. Despite all the advances in weather forecasting data and tools.
“The infrastructure that we had there was analog and more robust than then digital infrastructure that we have today. There's no way that the mobile phone system would work so you won't have internet, you won't have phone,” he said.
“For those reasons, plus the fractured media system we have where people get little bits and pieces of facts from different sources, which only really leads to confusion, in the end, our ability to communicate before, during and after a storm is much weaker now than it was in 1992,” he added.
Andrew did lead to stronger building codes and a much more coordinated emergency management system. Insurance, however, remains an enormous problem. After Andrew, all the major insurance companies left the state.
And, Norcross points out, rampant coastal development of luxury condominiums means “there’s a whole lot more valuable infrastructure in harm's way.”
Often forgotten, he adds, is what happens when people living in high rises in flooded areas are trapped in the building by a big storm surge? “Even though people will be safe, there's no power, there's no water, there's no communications. The roads are impassable outside. The cars that were on the street are all flooded and worthless. An ambulance can't get to the building,’ he said.
The bottom line, he says, is that even if we think we are more prepared, we’re not.
“We have so many more people that are likely to be stranded after a major storm. The net of all that, is it's actually worse now than it was then.”
FOX Weather will present “The Wrath of Hurricane Andrew: Tragedy and Triumph – 30 Years” anchored by hurricane specialist Bryan Norcross on August 23rd and 24th at 10 PM/ET.