Author Topic: Historical 1992 Hurricane Andrew Chaser Stories. *Very Inrteresting!*  (Read 1512 times)

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Offline DoctorZ

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The following two Hurricane Chaser accounts were originally published in the September 1992 edition of Storm Track, Vol. 15, #6, and used with permission.  For more information on Storm Track check out:


Andrew formed in classic Cape Verde fashion from an African wave, becoming a depression on 16 August and a tropical storm on the 17th. From the 18th through the 21st, an upper level low ESE of Bermuda had drawn Andrew north, buffeting it with shear and reducing it to a 1015 mb system with tropical storm-force gradient winds in the northeast quadrant. Most of the upper low moved NE and became caught up in higher-latitude westerlies, leaving Andrew trapped south of a strong deep-layer ridge, with no place to go but west and nothing to do but deepen -- fast. Andrew became a hurricane early the 22nd, then bombed 72 mb in 36 hours, becoming a 922 mb borderline Category 4/5 hurricane by midday 23 August. Andrew cruised due W, weakening to 941 mb across the Bahamas. In its short passage over the Straits of Florida, the eye shrunk, cloud tops cooled fast, and the eyewall solidified. When Andrew hit land near Homestead FL, it was a tightly wound little Category 4, with 1-minute sustained winds of about 145 mph gusting to 175 mph, peak surge of 16.9 ft in Biscayne Bay, and a pressure of 926 mb. [By contrast, the lowest pressure at Miami International Airport was 992 mb, meaning a 66 mb gradient over 20 miles!] In terms of pressure, Andrew was the 3rdstrongest landfall in U.S. history, behind only Camille (1969) and Labor Day (1935). Andrew crossed Florida and the Gulf of Mexico, oscillating several times in intensity, before final landfall as a Category 3, WSW of Morgan City LA on the 26th. It also spawned several tornadoes with 2nd landfall, including a killer near Laplace LA. Preliminary death and damage estimates are 54 and $15-30 billion respectively, making Andrew the most expensive U.S. disaster ever.

I had been in 3 tropical storms (Alicia, Marco, and Fabian), but Andrew was my first hurricane. What an introduction! As I said so stupidly but accurately on my video, "This was clearly not a trivial event." I tracked the storm from noon to midnight Sunday at NHC, using our NEXRAD PUP (a Doppler radar workstation) to plot center fixes, and watching with increasing awe as the long-awaited Big One motored our way. During the day, the cirrus on the eastern horizon evolved to dense cirrostratus, and the first outer band moved across with a nice lightning display around sunset. The eye became well-defined on radar, as it came within range of both the WSR-57 on our roof and the WSR-88D (NEXRAD) antenna in Melbourne. Satellite, radar, and airplane fixes had Andrew pegged on a rigid westerly course. The computer models came in, unanimously taking Andrew across Dade County shortly before dawn. Meteorologists and media alike braced for disaster with an eerie mix of eager anticipation and resignation to impending doom. By the time I left, Andrew was deepening again, and it was obvious we were going to be sledgehammered by a strong category-4 hurricane.

The streets of South Miami were deserted as I drove home; I was relieved to see that everybody was taking this seriously. With no hurricanes since 1965, and a population of around 2.5 million (mostly newcomers) from all over the nation and the world, the reaction by the public of Dade County to the warnings was amazing and outstanding. Tanja and I took a macabre little walk around our Dadeland neighborhood at 12:30, an hour before the first serious inner band, speculating on what effects 120+ mph eyewall easterlies would have on each sign, tree, and building we saw...including our own apartment complex! We had a north wind about 10 mph, lightning from the band offshore, and no rain.

My storm-induced adrenalin rushes had allowed me only 3 hours' sleep in 2 days, but I still could force only an hour's nap before I woke up and heard the first good gusts outside. No way was I going to sleep through a millisecond of this! I made sure my video camera was ready to go -- oddly, the same one I bought from Jim Leonard, before he left for Guam due to Miami's hurricane drought. Our windows were boarded up, of course, so I was outside on semi-protected 2nd- and 3rd floor hall balconies, shooting by the lights around the complex. By 4:30, the eye was 15-20 miles SSE of me over Biscayne Bay, and we still had power and TV! The winds outside were gusting well over 100 mph by then, and I was out on those balconies filming away and hoping it wasn't too dark for video.

Green-blue flashes of exploding transformers lit the sky, while that famous howl of the winds drove horizontal rain sheets past me faster than I could track them. On video I said, "This is still not as strong as a couple thunderstorm outflows I've been in." Seconds later, I ate those words; I heard boards, branches and glass breaking someplace not far away in a gust too strong to estimate, but way over 120 mph. I saw shingles and other small objects flying past, but it was too dark to catch them on video. The building shook some, above the constant structural vibration. I stuck my left hand past the plane of the balcony wall for a few seconds, risking amputation by airborne missiles to feel the sting of rain and winds like I had never seen. I was in the eyewall! At 4:45, with the center of the eye 15 miles almost due south and about to make landfall, the power finally failed -- no more video 'til dawn. I went back in and took shelter with Tanja in the bathroom, in case the south-facing windows blew in anyway in the NE part of the eyewall, turning our possessions into deadly projectiles. One final foray out the front door greeted me with 50 mph winds and flying tree leaves -- in the adjoining INNER hallway!

Meanwhile, 2 miles further north (and further from Andrew's eye), NHC was rocking, literally. The din of the storm was audible to all inside, and the swaying of the building was readily felt on the 6th floor. That floor has metal hurricane shutters, but a window still busted out. A gust of 164 mph slammed the rooftop anemometer, before it was blasted away by another gust. Suddenly, a deep BOOM rocked the building, silencing everyone... The radar had been tarn from the roof! Somehow, generator power and computer links held throughout the storm, allowing NHC and WSFO Miami to issue every single warning and statement without interruption. Several meteorologists from South Dade were working with nerves of steel, devoted to their mission while knowing their homes were being obliterated.

At first glimmer of light, with hurricane-force gusts in departing inner bands, I was out filming the storm and its effects.  Damage was relatively light where I live, mostly uprooted or snapped trees, a few missing windows, and chunks of roof missing. My complex was solidly built, and luckily, my apartment proper was almost unscathed. Tanja had parked her car in the Dadeland Mall parking garage a block away, and I needed an excuse to get out in Andrew and do some filming before it left. Camcorder wrapped in a trash bag, I went to the garage and drove her car out, only to find every route but one blocked by fallen lines, trees, light poles, and even railing from the elevated Metrorail tracks. Filming the whole time, I drove around the neighborhood, while dodging dangling light standards and debris of all kinds. All east-facing windows were blasted out of a 20-story building located 4 blocks from my apartment. Several miles further south in the Goulds, Redlands, and Cutler Ridge neighborhoods, then down into Homestead and Florida City, devastation was much worse; that was what you saw on national TV. During subsequent days, I filmed damage in those areas, choosing my routes carefully so I wouldn't impede relief efforts.

I was back at work again at noon Monday for the first of 2 more 12-hour shifts, tracking Andrew as it headed for Louisiana. The NEXRAD from Houston, over 200 miles away, showed the eye in crisp detail as it moved ashore for the last time. For a storm maniac like me, it was the ultimate excitement, a memory for all time. Only a 1.5-mile wide F5
monster tornado could rival this, and I didn't have to go anyplace to chase Andrew! My personal jollies were contrasted, though, by all the suffering everywhere around me. I'm ready for another one, but only on a recon flight or chasing someplace else. Imagine trying to chase a 20-mile wide F3 through a major urban area at 5 am; that's what Andrew was!


As the jet lifted off the runway, I sat back in my seat, closed my eyes, and took a deep breath. For over ten years, I  had carefully planned this moment. Like an athlete in training, I envisioned the awaiting events numerous times and even pondered the dangerous possibilities. But this was reality, my job, and there was no turning back. My eight hour flight from Tucson, Arizona to Miami, Florida allowed me plenty of time to remember all of the recent hurricane scenarios where storms either stalled, died, or turned away from Florida. But, Hurricane Andrew's westward trek remained constant, and there was little doubt in my mind that a monster hurricane was going to hit south Florida.

As a photographer who makes his living chasing severe weather, I have encountered hundreds of storms, some of them quite  violent. However, I knew that chasing a powerful hurricane would be different. The tornadoes I have chased were viewed from the outside looking in, and I usually had control over the situation. But chasing a hurricane required putting yourself inside the heart of the storm; there was little control.

Andrew was still a tropical storm on Friday, August 21 when I made the initial decision to intercept it. Forecasters were predicting that Andrew would strengthen and pass over south Florida during the daylight hours on Monday, which caught my attention from a photographic point of view. All of the recent major hurricanes, including Hugo, made landfall at night providing limited photographic opportunities.

Early Saturday morning, I made my final decision to intercept Andrew and called my travel agent. I completed the final check of my "hurricane pack"; a waterproof bag filled with safety, survival and photographic equipment. When I arrived in Miami late Saturday night, one of the first things I did was purchase three gallons of drinking water, a three day supply of food, two cans of flat-fix, all which proved to be very important. Motel rooms were few and far between as people left coastal areas and moved inland. But I found a room, though it was difficult to sleep knowing that Andrew was headed my way.

I awoke Sunday morning to the sound of a television in an adjacent room with a reporter noting evacuation orders. I filled the sink with water, then left my room to get a newspaper and breakfast at the local Denny's. Bold headlines on the Miami Herald read: "Bigger, Stronger, Closer", referring to Andrew. I overheard a man saying that the hurricane was "no big deal" adding that he had been through "a number of them". By mid morning, lines were already forming at gas stations & grocery stores. One enterprising man was on the side of the road selling candles.

My next stop was the National Hurricane Center in Coral Gables where I met Steve and Mike, veteran hurricane chasers who have a similar passion for storms. We discussed Andrew and several locations where we could safely photograph the storm.  After surveying the coast, we decided to ride out Andrew in a parking garage near the Dinner Key Marina in Coconut Grove.  The sturdy steel reinforced concrete building was built like a fortress. "Fort Andrew" someone quipped. The interior was well protected with thick concrete walls. Exterior walls were mostly solid concrete with large square openings that offered safe vantage points for taking pictures. From this building, we could see almost 360 degrees around. A building to our south did offer some blocking protection from the onslaught of flying debris expected from the marina. Our seven-story garage was located about two hundred yards from the marina.

Late Sunday afternoon was exceptionally peaceful. A few people strolled along the boardwalk; schools of fish darted about the calm waters in the marina. There were a few clouds and small thunderstorms to the southwest, but there was no discernible sign of danger. Throughout the early nighttime hours, we carefully monitored the radio and television broadcasts. Every hour, Dr. Robert Sheets, Director of the National Hurricane Center, would give updates on Andrew.  Hurricane Andrew was now a category 4 storm. It's forward motion increased such that it was now expected to strike during the early morning hours. This was a major setback for a photographer who needed daylight to shoot pictures. I tried several times to take a nap, but it was no use as the winds were increasing. Like sentries awaiting an advancing army, we all took turns looking out from our borrowed fortress over the Miami skyline searching for the earliest signs of Andrew.

Florida Light and Power decided to leave the electricity on until the power lines were destroyed. This provided us with an early warning system as arcing powerlines gave noticed of approaching high winds. The bursts of light also helped us see in the pitch black darkness. Line arcing and related transformer explosions became increasingly more intense as the evening progressed. The sound of the wind overcame even the car alarms that were going off at a steady rate throughout the garage. Steve and I took an anemometer (wind measuring device) and held it outside the fourth floor. Gusts to 65 mph made it very laborious to hold the meter even with both hands.

Around 4 a.m., the real wrath of Andrew bore down upon us. Windows from surrounding buildings imploded, sending shards of glass everywhere. I don't recall being cut, but I glanced at my arm and saw blood. A small piece of glass was imbedded in my arm. Occasionally, a very loud "thud" was heard. I could only guess that it was the sound of some building roof being torn apart. At this point my senses were on red alert, a type of awareness that I have experienced a number of times while in dangerous situations. Although the data from your senses of sight, sound, feeling, and taste are being processed so quickly, I somehow slowed down the events in my mind so I could deal with them in a rational and timely manner. The flip side of this was panic, which I avoided.

The infamous "hurricane wail" other people have described was unreal. The sound of the wind howling through the garage was wicked enough, but when it was mixed with breaking glass and crashing debris, it permeated my memory like a had song. To me, it was more like a devil's scream. The winds increased to such a force that any attempt to walk passed an open area in the garage was impossible. Exposing just half of your body to the blast of wind would take your breath away.

My journey from the fourth level to the ground level was an adventure by itself. I entered the stairwell and proceeded downstairs. While exiting the building, I almost made a fatal mistake. I allowed the basement door to close behind me, but quickly realized this, and lunged for the closing door. Just as the door slammed shut, I smashed against it hitting my head and nearly knocking myself out. After regaining my senses, I reached to open the door, but there was no handle or knob! It was pitch black and I was stuck. I expected to be carried off in a flood of water from the storm surge. Fortunately, I felt the partially exposed locking mechanism and with a pinch, I was able to open the door. Rainwater poured down the elevator shafts and stairwells. Emergency lights flickered on and off in an eerie fashion. Pipes from the fire sprinkling system swayed, some crashed to the floor. Paint had been stripped from those pipes that faced the wind. One pipe had fallen across a row of cars.

Over five hours Andrew pounded us with everything it had. Around 6:30 am, a faint blue tint could be detected in the sky signaling a rising sun. The dim morning light was welcomed. Less than one hour after sunrise, Andrew was history. We found the floor of our fortress covered with all sorts of debris. Many boats in the marina were seriously damaged or washed ashore. Totally exhausted, wet, bruised, and cut, I sat for a moment on the edge of the broken marina and sighed. The images once envisioned were now reality. But most important of all, it was great to be alive.
« Last Edit: February 28, 2015, 01:51:40 AM by DoctorZ »