20 years after Hurricane Andrew hit Miami-Dade, track forecasting has made giant strides

Jul 25, 2012

The following article was published in the South Florida Sun Sentinel on July 25, 2012:

20 years after Hurricane Andrew hit Miami-Dade, track forecasting has made giant strides

By David Fleshler


If Hurricane Andrew came barreling toward Florida today, meteorologists could predict the stretch of coast most likely to get slammed with far greater accuracy and speed than 20 years ago.

But the storm’s sudden strengthening to a Category 5 monster could easily have caught them as much by surprise as it did on August 24, 1992, when the violent storm struck southern Miami-Dade County.

To mark the 20th anniversary, the National Hurricane Center pulled together a group of experts, some of whom had been on duty for Andrew, to assess progress in forecasting hurricanes.

“Since Andrew there has been a dramatic improvement in the accuracy of the track forecast,” said Rick Knabb, director of the National Hurricane Center. “That’s a testament to the improvement in the models, the increase in satellite data that gives us a better handle on the forecast of steering currents.”

Forecasters have also improved their predictions of storm surge, the violent, wind-driven increase in local sea level that’s considered one of the most deadly elements of a hurricane. But they agree they need to do a better job of getting word out.

“We are in desperate need of a storm surge warning,” Knabb said. “Storm surge is the one weather-related hazard that has the potential of taking more lives in a single day than any other.”

Andrew killed 65 people and caused $26 billion in damage. It generated maximum sustained winds of 165 mph, becoming only the third Category 5 to strike the United States.

Since Andrew, meteorologists have extended their forecast track from three to four-to-five days. And they’re working on a six-to-seven-day track, which they won’t implement until it’s as accurate as the current track.

The move to a longer lead time could be controversial, but the panelists said it would force households to start planning.

“I feel like I have lashings on my back from when we went to the four or five day forecasting,” said Max Mayfield, former director of the National Hurricane Center. “A lot of people, especially the tourist industry, pushed back on that. But it’s all in the way you use it. And the intent of that four to five day forecast was not just to tell people to take action but just to start thinking about what you might do if the hurricane continues on that track.”

Andrew surprised forecasters by rapidly strengthening as it neared Florida. “No one that I know of thought Andrew was going to be a Category 5,” Mayfield said.

And while tracking has improved, forecasts of intensity have not.

“Over the past 20 years, the intensity forecasts have shown essentially no improvement,” Knabb said. “We’re routinely off by a category on the intensity forecasts on the Saffir–Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale.”

Frank Marks, director of the NOAA Hurricane Research Division, said scientists have been focusing on better intensity forecasts since the mid-90s, with added urgency after the unexpected strengthening of Hurricanes Charley and Humberto in 2005.

View the original article here: http://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/weather/hurricane/fl-hurricane-andrew-20th-anniversary-20120724,0,6166991.story