What if Hurricane Andrew hit South Florida today?
Picture Hurricane Andrew churning with devastating power, only this time it is aiming right down Broward Boulevard. With ferocious gusts up to 180 mph, it pounds Port Everglades, the Swap Shop and Sawgrass Mills Mall. It chews up the Elbo Room, Stranahan House and the Broward Mall. Kiss the Pompano Fishing Pier goodbye.

By the time the compact system departs the area, it has cut a 30-mile swath of destruction, leveling tens of thousands of homes and structures -- and causing up to $70 billion in damages, or almost double that of its 1992 hit.

While this scenario is hypothetical, emergency managers and hurricane forecasters say it could be very real.

"If we see this, we're in a heap of trouble," says Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami-Dade County.

Ten years after Andrew crushed much of south Miami-Dade County, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel asked Eqecat Inc., a company that assesses the potential for catastrophic damage, to explore what would happen if the same storm were to hit downtown Miami, Fort Lauderdale or Boynton Beach dead-on today.

The company, based in Houston, took a profile of Andrew's wind speeds, laid it out in grids and fed it into a computer model. The computer then made adjustments for the curve of the coastline and spread this profile -- technically called a wind field -- across each of the three counties.

The results:

  • The bulk of all three counties would be subjected to wind gusts up to 160 mph. Structures north of the eye and along the coast would be slashed with gusts up to 180 mph.

  • Because Andrew was so compact and fast-moving, neighborhoods and landmarks far to the west still would feel the brunt force of the storm. This includes the Mall at Wellington Green in Palm Beach County and the Coral Springs Center for the Arts, both of which would feel gusts up to 160 mph.

    Because the shoreline is so built up, property damage would amount to $48.2 billion with a direct hit on Miami; $40.2 billion with a Fort Lauderdale hit; and $29.8 billion with a Boynton Beach hit, according to Eqecat, which projects potential damages for insurance companies. Local officials, however, estimate the damages would be nearly double that amount.

    If the eye roughly followed Broward Boulevard in Broward County, the strongest gusts would hit Hillsboro Inlet, Sea Ranch Lakes, Lauderdale-by-the-Sea and Fort Lauderdale's Galleria Mall.

    If the eye rolled ashore near Boynton Beach Boulevard, the strongest winds would hit the mobile home community of Briny Breezes, the Ritz-Carlton Palm Beach in Manalapan, several high-end marinas, the St. Andrews Golf Club and the Lake Worth pier.

    If the core plowed over downtown Miami, the strongest gusts would whip Bal Harbour, Surfside, Sunny Isles Beach, Golden Beach, the Golden Glades interchange, Aventura Mall, North Miami Beach and Turnberry Isle.

    After studying these scenarios, emergency managers squirmed.

    "The economic impact would be huge," said Tony Carper, Broward's director of emergency management. "You'd cripple the tourism industry for months, if not years."

    "It'd be just like having a war," said Charles Lanza, Miami-Dade's emergency management director. "This is the population core of the county."

    Panic and devastation

    Hurricane Andrew, which struck South Florida on Aug. 24, 1992, was the costliest hurricane to hit the United States. Although figures vary, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says the storm left up to $40 billion in damages in 2002 dollars.

    The vast majority of that figure, 93 percent, was in Florida. The remainder was in Louisiana, as Andrew proceeded to hit the Gulf Coast, west of New Orleans.