WEST PALM BEACH — Bryan Norcross remembers tracking “a 75 mph little tiny, tiny hurricane that looks the size of one county” back in August 1992 while he was chief meteorologist at WTVJ-TV in Miami.
But within 48 hours, Hurricane Andrew rapidly strengthened into a Category 5 monster, charging ashore pushing a 17-foot storm surge and packing a peak wind gust of 177 mph. South Florida would sustain $25.5 billion in damages, NOAA reported.
“The worst does happen — just when you think that, ‘Well, it’s not very likely to be that bad.’ Really, Hurricane Andrew proved that the worst does happen. It was worse than we thought it could ever be,” Norcross, who is now a senior hurricane specialist with the Weather Channel, said Wednesday during the Governor’s Hurricane Conference at the Palm Beach County Convention Center.
“The fact is that with hurricanes, storms don’t always jog away from the coast. And storms don’t always weaken as they come ashore,” he said.
Norcross provided on-air weather coverage for 23 consecutive hours while Hurricane Andrew roared outside, and he was a featured speaker during the the 31st annual conference. The event is the largest tropical cyclone conference in the United States, Palm Beach County Mayor Paulette Burdick said.
Activities throughout the week include training sessions and workshops for emergency management officials. An exhibit hall features storm-related contractors and companies displaying an assortment of products like satellite phones, survival kits, flood barriers, field restrooms and ready-to-eat meals.
The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season starts June 1. Last year, Hurricane Hermine became the first to make Florida landfall in 11 years, and powerful Hurricane Matthew brushed along the East Coast.
Kimberly Prosser, Brevard County emergency management director, delivered a speech detailing Matthew’s impacts on her county.
“More than 4,000 people and 400 pets were sheltered. Over 800,000 cubic yards of debris generated. More than 200,000 households without power. Two hundred and twenty-five traffic signals on flash, or just dead,” Prosser said.
“Eleven homes destroyed, 140 homes with major damage, 1,500 homes affected. Public and residential damages totaled approximately $75 million,” she said.
The conference theme is "Preparedness Works!" However, Floridians today have little tolerance for protracted storm responses, said Bill Johnson, Palm Beach County emergency management director.
“Studies demonstrate that over half of all of our people believe that, in the event of a major emergency, help will arrive within an hour. Expectations are high. No longer are our residents willing to wait days or weeks for their lives to return to normalcy after a storm,” Johnson told the general session crowd.
“We saw patience grow thin during power outages, debris clearance, and other service interruptions after Hermine and Matthew. Almost 1.1 million Floridians lost power in Matthew. And God forbid what anyone would do without their smartphone more than a couple of hours,” he said, drawing scattered laughs.
“Having a kit with supplies to last three to five days is simply an incomprehensible concept for many of our residents,” he said.
From 1963-2012, drowning accounted for about 90 percent of deaths during U.S. tropical cyclones, said Ed Rappaport, National Hurricane Center acting director. Storm surge is the chief culprit, followed by inland flooding triggered by excessive rainfall.
“Most people, particularly in the public, when they think of hurricanes will first think of the wind blowing in the palm trees, roof tiles flying away. While that all does occur, it’s not the wind that takes lives in almost all cases. It’s the water,” Rappaport said.
“Stay away from the water,” he said.
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