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Florida hurricane summit recalls monster Andrew

In this age of smart phones, Twitter and a 24/7 news media, every tropical wave rolling off faraway Africa is almost as closely monitored as a Kardashian sister shopping on South Beach.

Things were a lot different 20 hurricane seasons ago, when a weak little system named Andrew meandered toward the Bahamas, not getting a whole lot of attention until it morphed overnight into a Category 5 killer, one of the strongest storms on record. South Florida had just two days of high alert to hunker down for what would become one of the costliest natural disasters in United States history, a catastrophe that exposed gaping holes in emergency planning.

The sobering lessons learned from Andrew — which transformed the business of forecasting tropical systems, preparing for them and picking up the pieces afterward — are a major theme at the 26th annual Governor’s Hurricane Conference being held this week in Fort Lauderdale.

The conference, which drew about 1,750 people including emergency managers, rescue workers, forecasters and industry representatives, revolves around dozens of training sessions focused on the latest developments in an array of disaster issues, from the challenges of managing debris to employing social media in public outreach.

Gov. Rick Scott opened Wednesday’s general session on an upbeat note, praising Florida’s disaster planning system as the best in the nation while, at the same time, hoping it doesn’t get tested again this year after the hurricane season opens June 1. Florida has gone six seasons without a hurricane, a streak no one at the conference, or anywhere else in Florida, wants to see end.

“I hope we continue this plan of not having any hurricanes,’’ Scott said, while later acknowledging “the odds are not in our favor.’’

South Florida has been hit by dozens of storms over the decades but Andrew, which struck on Monday, Aug. 24, 1992, ranked among the worst. A Category 5 hurricane with 165 mph winds, it struck in South Miami-Dade and buzz-sawed across the southern tip of Florida in just four hours, causing $26 billion in damage and killing 26 people.

Bryan Norcross, a WTVJ-Channel 4 meteorologist whose early warnings and round-the-clock coverage of Andrew’s approach made him a national figure, said that at the time many people in South Florida had pretty much dismissed hurricane threats.

The last major storm, Betsy, had struck 27 years earlier and Andrew had initially been forecast to remain a weak tropical storm that curved north. Going into the weekend, he said, few people were paying much attention.

Today, anybody with a computer can instantly scan a host of sophisticated computer forecast models and satellite images, but in 1992, TV forecasters replied on teletypes and printers spitting out updates from the National Hurricane Center. He remembered his anxiety waiting for a critical Friday afternoon update, with Andrew just off the Bahamas, and then trying to decipher the wet, sticky and smudged map that rolled out of the printer.

“It was the slowest [bleeping] printer in the world,’’ he said.

At the National Hurricane Center, forecasters were relying on fewer and cruder satellite images and models still being developed, said Max Mayfield, a former director of the center who was among a team forecasting Andrew’s path.

While they couldn’t do much better today in predicting Andrew’s path, a range of new devices would help in pinpointing the timing. Andrew moved far faster than forecast and also morphed overnight into a monster — a rapid intensification that forecasters still struggle to predict.

Michele Baker, chief assistant administrator of Pasco County who was Miami-Dade’s emergency operations officer during Andrew, recalls going home on Friday preparing for a weekend off. By the next morning, she was ordering the evacuation of 220,000 people in a day that is such a blur she doesn’t remember the details.

The situation quickly got worse once Andrew had cleared out, as the full picture of devastation emerged. There were no plans to get people food or water or to provide security for the suddenly rampant looting. And the initial appeals for state and federal aide went unheeded for two days until county emergency manager Kate Hale famously stood in front of television cameras and asked for help: “Where’s the cavalry?’’

“For the first couple of days, we are on our own and we were not prepared,’’ she said.

Frank Koutnik, a disaster and security consultant who was then operations chief for the state Division of Emergency Management, said that state officials were overwhelmed and undermanned. The state’s emergency outpost, for instance, had only 16 incoming phone lines.

“The cavalry did not come because the cavalry did not know how to get organized,’’ he said.

Hastily assessing their resources, emergency managers set up communication and delivery systems that became the base for an emergency management system that has since been massively upgraded and overhauled.

For all the progress in forecasting and managing storms, it’s still a challenge to get the public to prepare for them, with an estimated 30 percent of residents typically ignoring evacuation orders.

Mayfield, who now consults on WPLG Channel 10’s hurricane forecast, also put Andrew in some sobering perspective. Andrew was fiercely powerful but also small. A number of unnamed storms that hit Miami, including in 1926 and 1928, were larger and more damaging — as were hurricanes Floyd, Katrina and Ike.

“It was not really the big one,’’ Mayfield said. “As bad as things were in Andrew, if it had been a little farther north in the more populated areas or been larger like some previous hurricanes, things could have worse, believe it or not.”