Local 10 Hurricane Specialist Max Mayfield Remembers Hurricane Andrew

Andrew was not 'The Big One,' says the former director of the National Hurricane Center

Published On: Jul 24 2012 12:00:19 PM EDT   Updated On: Aug 20 2012 02:26:19 PM EDT
MIAMI -

Like many South Florida residents, I have some pretty vivid memories from Hurricane Andrew.  I’ll share my thoughts focused on South Florida from my perspective as one of the Hurricane Specialists at the National Hurricane Center (NHC) that was located in Coral Gables on U.S. 1 across from the University of Miami during 1992, and also as someone whose family and home went through the northern eyewall of Andrew.

Meteorologists will remember Andrew as one of only three Category 5 hurricanes to strike the mainland United States.  Direct deaths (from the actual hazards of the hurricane) totaled 26, including 3 in the Bahamas, 15 in Florida and 8 in Louisiana.  Dozens more indirect deaths occurred, many during the recovery period. 

Andrew’s total damage estimate of $26.5 billion (1992 dollars) made it the most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history up to that time.

I remember receiving calls at NHC from the media during the first part of August asking about the absence of tropical storms and hurricanes.  A rather typical looking tropical wave crossed the west coast of Africa on August 14.  Based on satellite imagery, I wrote the first official NHC advisory on what eventually became Andrew during the night of August 16.  It became a tropical storm on the 17th, and was steered westward and northwestward over the next few days.  As the upper-level pattern became more favorable for strengthening,

Andrew became a hurricane on August 22nd, while centered about 600 miles to the east of the Bahamas.  This was only two days before making landfall in South Florida. 

Andrew was steered nearly due westward for the next few days and, after passing through the Bahamas, made landfall (defined as the center of the eye initially moving over land) in Florida first over Elliott Key at 4:40 a.m., followed by landfall on the mainland near Fender Point (about 9 miles east-northeast of Homestead) at 5:05 a.m. on Monday August 24th.

Dr. Bob Sheets was the NHC Director during Andrew and, in my opinion, did an unflappable job guiding the NHC and communicating with emergency managers and the media.  Bob’s efforts saved lives.  I worked the evening shift (4:00 p.m. to midnight) at the NHC the week before Andrew struck Florida.  I didn’t want to chance not being able to get to work on Monday due to debris blocking roads, so I took my sleeping bag into the office and planned to spend Sunday night at NHC after getting off shift.  I remember giving Dr. Bob Sheets a little break by doing a few media interviews, including one with Local 10's Ann Bishop, after I was relieved from my forecast shift.  I later found a room near to where the HAM radio operators were set up and tried to rest a little.  Just as I lay down, a window blew out in the office next door (even with our hurricane shutters in place).  I remember thinking that wasn’t supposed to happen, and I gave up on trying to sleep.

At 4:54 a.m., we heard a loud noise as we lost our radar imagery.  The winds had become so strong that the radar dish tumbled down from its mount on the roof.  Our two large satellite antennas behind the NHC were shredded.  Fortunately, our backup power continued to function and we had backups for both the radar and satellite imagery.  However, the air conditioning units on top of the building were damaged which meant that it got hot inside the NHC given all the computers and media lights.

We could see that there was considerable damage at and around the NHC.  We also knew that the eyewall of Andrew, where the strongest winds occurred, passed to the south of the NHC where, we estimated, about half of the staff of the NHC and co-located Miami Weather Forecast Office (WFO) had homes and families. 

We knew that some people had likely died in this hurricane.  NHC and Miami WFO forecasters had to stay focused on the job at hand because Andrew was still a major hurricane and headed toward Louisiana.  NHC forecasters posted a Hurricane Watch for portions of the northern Gulf coast including Louisiana at 9:00 a.m. on the Monday morning that Andrew struck South Florida, followed by a hurricane warning for Louisiana later that afternoon.

Like many colleagues, I was unable to contact my family at home because the power and telephone lines were out.  Later that day, a friend drove by my home and called in on her car phone.  I asked how my family was and I was so relieved and thankful when she said “they were all outside and looked like they were fine.” 

I asked how my house looked and she responded something like “well, it is not too bad,” but I couldn’t help but hear concern in her voice.  And then I asked how my trees looked and she responded “What trees?”  I knew I had a problem. 

I finally made it home that Monday evening before sunset by driving slowly and with difficulty around debris and large highway signs that were downed on U.S. 1 and SR 874 and around downed power lines as I got closer to my neighborhood.  Many street signs were down and I honestly didn’t know exactly where I was until I saw some stunned neighbors and asked them where my house was. 

My shutters had withstood the winds of Andrew but I lost most of my roof shingles and tar paper on the east side of my house.  I asked my kids to go get a ladder so that I could get up on the roof and get an idea of the damage before it got dark.  My kids all just smiled and one of them said “Dad, you don’t need a ladder.”  They took me around to the side of the house where they walked me up the trunk of a large tree that had fallen on my house from a neighbor’s yard.

I can’t even begin to complain about the damage to my house in Kendall given how much worse it was to the south of us.  Our home was near the outer edge of Andrew’s northern eyewall.  The outer edge was not nearly as bad as the inner edge.  Still, we finally moved into a mobile home at the urging of our insurance adjuster and didn’t move back into our repaired home until July 1993.  I remember one of the NHC satellite meteorologists who used to have a house in Country Walk.  He told us that he was “homeless” after losing his house.  Many people at the NHC would spend months getting their home repaired or rebuilt.

Final Thoughts

Andrew will be remembered as an intense Category 5 hurricane.  But it is important to understand that it was a small Category 5 hurricane. 

The core of Andrew with its strongest winds struck the southern part of Miami-Dade County.  This core did not directly strike Miami Beach, downtown Miami, the Port of Miami, Miami International Airport, or the Brickell financial district.  A track shifted only slightly to the north by 15 to 20 miles would most assuredly have caused even greater damage. 

Because Andrew was so small, the storm surge was limited in areal extent.  The maximum value of storm tide (the sum of storm surge plus astronomical tide) in Andrew was 16.9 feet measured at the Burger King International Headquarters.  If Andrew had been a larger hurricane, both the areal coverage of wind and storm surge damage would have been greater. 

The Great Miami Hurricane of 1926, the Lake Okeechobee Hurricane of 1928, and the South Florida Hurricane of 1947 were all Category 4 hurricanes but were substantially larger than Andrew. 

I don’t want to do or say anything to minimize the unacceptable loss of life and tremendous damage caused by Andrew, but as bad as Andrew was, I can assure you that it was not “The Big One.”