There was little calm before this storm.

South Florida residents scrambled frantically to find safe havens on Sunday as Hurricane Andrew, wielding winds of 150 mph and pushing a wall of water 14 feet high, bore down on a peninsula that has not felt a major storm in more than 20 years.

Shoppers stripped the shelves bare at area grocery stores, took all of the cash from automatic teller machines and clogged gas stations and hardware stores. And then a handful of them headed for emergency shelters.

All the while, Andrew surged stronger, growing to what could be the most intense storm to hit Florida since 1935 when a Labor Day storm leveled portions of the Keys, killing 400 people. The halo of hurricane-force winds whirling around Andrew’s tightly focused eye raged at more than 150 mph, stronger than the winds Hurricane Hugo threw at the Carolinas in 1989.

“We’re going to see something down here that I hoped I’d never experience,” said Bob Sheets, director of the National Hurricane Center in Coral Gables.

As of Sunday evening, the hurricane center was predicting that Andrew would plow ashore in Broward or Dade county, surge across the Florida peninsula somewhere south of Fort Myers, then move into the Gulf of Mexico.

Tropical storm force winds were expected by midnight, hurricane forecast winds will come with dawn and the eye should arrive between 6 and 8 a.m. tomorrow, forecasters said.

“The eye is definitely going to hit somewhere in South Florida,” hurricane specialist Lixion Avila said. “Wherever the eye hits will be leveled. This is going to be the worst.”

“There is no chance that this would not hit us.” Avila said. “It would have to take a miracle.”

“It is very close to our worst-case scenario,” said Paul Hebert, meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service Office in Miami.

Sheets said he hopes the advance warning and evacuation of coastal South Florida will keep Andrew’s death toll down to near the 25 people who died when Hugo smashed into the Carolinas in 1989.

But depending on exactly where in South Florida the eye hit, Andrew could cause about $10 billion in damages and easily exceed Hugo’s $7 billion damage toll, Sheets said.

This will be the first Category 4 storm to hit South Florida since 1926, meteorologist Jack Beven said. That storm killed 243 people.

But the storm everyone thought about as Andrew neared the coastline was Hugo. The hope was that Andrew would not be nearly as savage, that the lessons learned in the Carolinas would prepare South Florida to weather the storm.

Thousands of residents obeyed the mandatory evacuation orders handed down shortly after 7 a.m. on Sunday. By early afternoon, highways north, especially Florida’s Turnpike, were packed.

At one point, turnpike traffic was backed up from Lantana to Sunrise Boulevard, but early Sunday afternoon, Gov. Lawton Chiles ordered the Turnpike Authority to stop collecting tolls. Still, northbound traffic on both the turnpike and Interstate 95 was backing up in Palm Beach County on Sunday evening.

Some of those who chose to remain in South Florida began settling in at shelters, lugging bedding, snacks and games with them to pass the time. But there were far fewer than Broward officials wanted. The evacuation order affected almost a half million people, but as of Sunday evening, only 3,200 had gone to the shelters.

“We don’t have a very large turnout at the shelters,” County Administrator Jack Osterholt said. “People for whatever reason aren’t taking this seriously enough.”

Sue Kleinman, who lives on the 18th floor of a Pompano Beach condominium, moved into the Pompano Beach Middle School at the urging of condo security guards.