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20 years later, Hurricane Hunters still carry memories of Andrew

Suspended in the torrents of wind and rain thousands of feet above sea level, at the center of what became the costliest hurricane in U.S. history, there was a moment when the crew of hurricane hunters stopped worrying about the storm swirling around them.

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The low rumble of the plane and the howl of the storm faded. The beep of machines and the steadying ring of radar felt more like the countdown of a bomb.

Hurricane Andrew was about to hit Homestead, full force.

The crew's minds flooded. Images of homes, families, friends, neighbors.

Any chance we get a break on this storm? team forecaster Jack Parrish asked a crewmate.

"Nope," came the response.

Hurricane Andrew hit South Florida in the early hours of Aug. 24, 1992, with 165 mph winds. It devastated Homestead, Florida City and parts of Miami, directly causing 15 deaths and $30 billion in property damage. More than 100,000 residents of south Dade County fled and never came back.

For Parrish and other members of the Hurricane Hunter force, a team that flies into and investigates nature's most powerful storms, Andrew will always stand apart.

It was the first time they had to pick through the wreckage for lost belongings. The first time they found their own neighborhoods swept away. The first time a storm made it personal.

"You go on missions when you look down at all the devastation, what's left of all these homes, but then you get to go home to your air conditioning and your warm bed and your hot coffee and your cold beer and it's less real," maintenance supervisor Greg Bast said. "But when all of a sudden you're living that devastation, it's different. It's real."

• • •

Twenty years later, the hunters still invoke the name: Andrew.

It's a word of warning, a nod to The Big One they never saw coming.

"There was really no getting ready for Andrew," Parrish said.

He lived in Homestead, a community about 30 miles south of downtown Miami. He had a house, a wife, two small children. He felt safe there.

So safe, he said, he had never prepared a hurricane plan.

So when Parrish saw Andrew grow from a struggling storm to a Category 5 monster headed straight for Homestead, he knew what was coming.

But Parrish had only seen these storms from the sky.

His neighbors watched coconuts blow through walls, 4 by 4s crash through windows.

"I'll never forget their faces," he said.

Andrew was a compact storm, just 60 miles wide. It leveled more than 25,000 homes and damaged more than 100,000 more. Of the 1,176 mobile homes in Homestead, all but nine were demolished.

Bast watched the devastation from afar. The former Air Force pilot helped move the Hurricane Hunters' fleet out of Miami to safe haven in Jacksonville.

He and the rest of the crew landed, then crowded around a small television to watch the storm slam into Florida. Some men tried the phones, making frantic calls into the night.

Survivors will never forget Andrew's haunting howl.

But what Bast remembers most is the silence.

"We all knew what we were dealing with, and we were just stunned quiet," he said. "It's sickening knowing what's about to happen to all those homes, to all those people."

When Bast returned to Homestead, he hardly recognized the street he lived on. The roof of his house was blown off, turned 180 degrees and dropped. Walls collapsed. Windows shattered. Entire chunks of the bedroom were missing.

Everyone left standing was in shock.

• • •

In many ways, Andrew was a wake-up call for the entire state.

"If there was just a slight shift, as bad as Andrew was, it could have been much, much worse," former National Hurricane Center director Max Mayfield said, noting the storm's close proximity to downtown and Miami International Airport.

Just south, Homestead Air Force Base was nearly flattened.

It sent an undeniable message to the Hurricane Hunter squad: Move.

Before the storm, the fleet was stationed on a back ramp at Miami International Airport. Open air, little protection from the elements — it's where old planes were left to die.

They called it cockroach corner.

"There were all these mothballed planes, and then if you dug a little, there we were," Parrish said. "Planes were just left there — under the sun, out in the open."

When a hangar at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa became available, the fleet jumped at the chance.

Unlike Miami, consistently under siege by tropical storms and hurricanes, Tampa hadn't had a direct hit since 1921.

Hangar Number 5 looks nothing today like it did when they arrived in 1992, the storm veterans explain. Everything had to be stripped, rebuilt, redone — a total makeover.

But one thing hasn't changed much for nearly two decades: the crew.

Many go way back. Aircraft Operations Center Chief Alan Goldstein and Chief Technician Terry Lynch have known each other since they were Sea Scouts together in Miami.

"This is where I'm supposed to be," Lynch said of the Hurricane Hunter squad. "It's the best job in the world. It gets in your blood. That's why you don't see us leaving — even after 20, 30 years."

For this team, Tampa has become home.

• • •

Despite the name, the pilots and scientists known as the Hurricane Hunters do not kill storms. They can't.

"Bottom line," Goldstein said. "We can't do anything to stop a hurricane."

What they can do is learn. And if they learn enough, they can save lives.

In 1992, Andrew baffled forecasters. Since then, the U.S. government has prioritized hurricane research and preparedness.

The aptly named Hurricane Forecast Improvement Project was a 10-year plan launched in 2007 aimed at bettering the government's ability to forecast and understand how tropical storms form, change and move.

This year, Doppler radar technology fixed to the tails of Hurricane Hunter planes are being used in real time to take measurements of a storm as the planes fly inside.

They're making progress, officials said, but still have a long way to go.

"We're one of the few places in the world that flies Hurricane Hunter planes with people inside into and around the storm," Mayfield said. "Yet we still lack a complete depth of understanding of these things. We need to do better."

"What's happened since Andrew is stunning," Marks added. "But no matter how good we get, someone is still going to be affected by these storms."

Marissa Lang can be reached at mlang@tampabay.com, (813) 226-3386 or on Twitter @Marissa_Jae.

20 years later, Hurricane Hunters still carry memories of Andrew 08/23/12 [Last modified: Thursday, August 23, 2012 10:54pm]

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