MIAMI, Aug. 19 (UPI) -- At 3 a.m., Aug. 24, 1992 -- 10 years ago Saturday -- Hurricane Andrew raged ashore with a 17-foot-high wall of water. The coastline near Homestead, Fla., moved inland about a mile.
But it was the wind that made Andrew a monster. One of the first things Andrew did was to smash the wind-speed gauge atop the hurricane center in the Miami suburb of Coral Gables. The gauge registered 145 mph at the time but almost nobody believes that's as high as it got.
Recent research by International Hurricane Center, established in 1993 at Florida International University, place the top sustained winds at 165 mph or higher. There are discussions about changing the records this week to match that figure.
Houses were flattened, mobile homes were blown hundreds of yards from their moorings, roofs came off. Gusts of winds tossed cars and heavy furniture from demolished houses into the air. Salt shakers and huge pieces of roof were found side by side in the mud.
Within minutes, terrified residents of south Dade County forgot about the damage to their homes, cars and belongings. They headed for interior closets, bathtubs and what few basements there are in the area to try to save their lives.
One young woman was killed when a beam tore loose from her house's framework and crushed her. Others died in similar ways. Fifteen people died during the storm. As many as 40 others died in the aftermath from construction accidents, downed power lines and the like. Twenty-six people were killed in Florida, the Bahamas and Louisiana.
"It got real scary when you could hear the boards creaking and eventually coming off," said Cindy Morgalo, who rode out the storm at a relative's house.
Four hours later, Andrew was gone, raging on to Louisiana, where it caused more damage.
In Miami-Dade County, many people were unable to speak weeks after the hurricane hit. A house-to-house survey by Florida International found one 17-year-old boy who to this day refuses to go more than five blocks from his house. Divorces increased by 30 percent and domestic violence was up 50 percent.
Despite the presence of 22,000 military personnel -- 7,000 Florida National Guardsmen to keep order and some 15,000 federal troops to help with relief efforts -- looting was commonplace and the sound of gunfire was heard every night.
The damage was staggering. The devastation stretched for 21 miles -- nothing but rubble. Before Andrew, the most damage caused by a hurricane was $7 billion caused by Hugo when it hit South Carolina in 1989. The National Hurricane Center lists damage from Andrew at $26.5 billion and other estimates range all the way up to $30 billion in Florida and Louisiana.
Building codes were toughened in south Florida immediately, and statewide earlier this year, but there are still some problems with sloppy building.
More than 25,000 homes were destroyed and 101,000 others were damaged. A grand jury report said 90 percent of all mobile homes in south Miami-Dade County were destroyed, and in Homestead it was 99 percent -- 1,167 of 1,176.
Insured losses alone were pegged at $16 billion, a disaster for the insurance industry. It is still trying to recover.
"Insurance companies refused to renew homeowners' contracts and in fact revoked thousands of existing policies," said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who became state insurance commissioner shortly after Andrew struck. "What shook up the marketplace so much as the understanding that it Andrew turned on degree to the north and devastated downtown Fort Lauderdale instead of downtown Homestead the damage would be $50 billion."
Techniques to forecast the track of hurricanes have improved immensely in 10 years, although predicting changes in intensity still needs work. But there wasn't much wrong in the forecast of Andrew leading up to landfall either.
"When I was doing a briefing on Friday, I said that it is not going to be a problem on the weekend," said Bob Sheets, director of the National Hurricane Center at the time. "Well, it was not a problem on the weekend but things changed Saturday."
"Saturday morning was catchup time because we were behind the curve. We did not expect this to take place. It took up time to get people moving," Sheets said.
By Sunday, Andrew had muscled up. It developed winds of 140 mph and headed straight for south Dade County. It never wavered and just about everybody in south Florida knew something really bad was coming. But nobody could know how bad.
Now they know, and the fear that another Hurricane Andrew could be much worse boggles minds all over Florida and the insurance industry.
Florida International University's new International Hurricane Center is trying to gather knowledge to help, but the warnings from forecasters are grim.
Although long-range forecasts for this year are light, calling for average or below activity, forecasters say we are in a long stretch of bad news hurricanes that will last more than a decade.
"We have been very fortunate over the past seven years in having only three major hurricanes make landfall in the United States, but we cannot expect this luck to continue indefinitely," said William Gray of Colorado State University, the nation's most recognized long-range forecaster.
(This is the first part of a five-part series on the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Andrew.)