Disaster Research: Coping with Hurricane Andrew

News Division
June, 1996 Speech by Gay Nemeti
The Miami Herald
1 Herald Plaza
Miami, Florida 33132
305/376-3403 (voice)
305/376-4424 (fax)
  1. Hurricane Andrew Scenario
  2. Hurricane Andrew Facts & Figures
  3. Hurricane Andrew and the Miami Herald
    1. Distribution
    2. Reporting
  4. Hurricane Andrew and The Newsroom
  5. Hurricane Andrew Projects & Research
    1. What Went Wrong
    2. Worse-Case Scenario
    3. Graphics
  6. Weather
    1. Long history of weather data
    2. Preparation
  7. The Value of Archives
    1. Instant Expertise
    2. Other's experience draw on.
  8. Consider
    1. Reference to have on hand.
    2. Familiarity with data or research resources.
      • Tax Roll database.
      • Vertical file.
    3. Keep follow-up statistics.
    4. Other Resources.
      1. Building codes
      2. University source guides.
  9. Every Community Could Suffer a Disaster.
    1. Earthquake
    2. Flood (coastal or river or lake)
    3. Weather, including hurricane, hail, ice storm, drought, heat wave.
    4. Fire
    5. Chemical and biomedical facilities.
    6. Sea Ports
    7. Train spills (hazardous waste ? )
    8. Civil Disturbance
  10. Aftermath
    1. Helping the Reader
    2. Factline
    3. Bottom Line
  11. Pulitzer
  12. Final Points
    1. Disaster Plan for your department.
    2. Disaster Plan for the Newsroom.
    3. Disaster Plan for the Company.
    4. Disaster Planning for the Community you serve.


Early that August week, South Florida residents were tracking Hurricane Andrew, beginning minimal preparations. By Saturday the supermarkets and gas stations and home supply stores saw a steady rise of hurricane customers. By Sunday, it came clear this one was likely to hit and not glance off our shores and head to the north as they often do. It was going straight up the Miami River.

By Sunday afternoon, they were predicting a Class 5 Hurricane was going to make landfall in Dade County. Some 80,000 people sought shelter. By 12:13 am on Monday, National Hurricane Center director Bob Sheets knew it was going to hit in South Dade. At 3 am, the radar showed winds of 140 mhp. At 5:20 am, the wind gauge recorded a speed of 164 miles mph. Then it broke. The building was swaying and reporters reported feeling seasick. And the radar had blown off the roof of the nations' hurricane center.

The winds subside around 7 am on Monday, and people stumbled out to see what nature wrought.



Right after the storm, and long before mail service resumed, the Herald was delivered to the most devastated areas of south Dade. Only 13 of the normal complement of 93 carriers were working. A 6,000 square foot distribution center was obliterated and three warehouses were severely damaged. We had three carriers we were not able to locate for days. There were no vending racks. Eventually, circulation set up shop in an empty bank parking lot. The papers were protected from rain, but the carriers were not.

Employees from all division and ranks, worked to deliver the paper, including the publisher and his family, and many from the newsroom. One executive remembers hearing sounds of shotguns being cocked by residents protecting their homes from looting.

Delivering the paper itself an incredible job. There were no landmarks, no trees, and people who were unfamiliar with the routes and neighborhoods were negotiating through incredible debris in the early hours of the morning with no light. No road signs, no fronts of houses. A total of about 40,000 copies of the newspaper was delivered free to the most critically damaged areas, for about a month after the storm. The VP of circulation delivered two routes for 46 days straight. One of the most emotional aspects of this for many of us, were the readers in the front yards of their exploded homes, weeping with gratitude at having the paper delivered.

The logistics of the recovery operation were incredible, concerning details you would not even think about. The chief engineer managed the logistics, and finagled many deals. Among them, gas stations that would pump gas for anyone with a Herald id in affected areas. He cut a deal with a national tire chain to provide 200 - 300 tires lost while delivering the paper.

The Herald was without water pressure. The Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel was on standby to print the Herald the first couple of days after the storm. The Herald negotiated to have a pump truck take water from the lagoon at Calder Race Track so we could support using the flexo press units.


All this was accomplished by the employees of the Miami Herald, including those who personally suffered from the storm, including a city desk editor who lived for 18 months in a trailer while his house was rebuilt

Help for the employees

* Knight-Ridder arranges for signature loans.
* There was free water and a food bank set-up.
* The work and family counselor set up day care for the children of employees that went on for a few months.
* The telephone guy went out to people's homes to help, as did the building engineers and so on.
* The company cut deals with suppliers to have generators, building materials to be delivered and sold at cost.
* Employees helped each other clean up their homes.
* Everybody cut slack on scheduling.

The Newsroom

In the newsroom, reporters had been dispatched and spent the night not far from landfall. Photographers left early Monday morning to go as far as they could maneuver. This was before anyone knew how bad it was.

Credit was given to one longtime editor who had weathered a couple of hurricanes, and the new city desk editor, who had only been at the Miami office for two weeks. Unflappable, he and others laid a path of team coverage that should us the blueprint for how we would approach the aftermath for some months to come.

There were no cell phones. I think advertising had two, but they were the heavy kind that needed to be recharged often. There were no phone booths, and satellite and radar were out anyway. Telephone lines and power lines were down in much of the war zone. The Herald employed couriers to run film back and forth between the newspaper and the photographers in the field.

One crisis we faced was that we did not have sufficient petty cash in the newsroom to send out news teams, even for basic necessities or flashlights. Hurriedly, the company arranged for a bank to deliver several thousand dollars.

Sister newspapers quickly sent help for every division. In the newsroom, these people had no geographical knowledge of the area, then we had to spend the time to teach them our front end editing system, typesetting, etc.

For a while after the hurricane, that paper concentrated on newspapers that would help people find food, water, shelter, gasoline, building supplies and other aid. We ran lists for families looking for missing persons, where to get help.

In the initial aftermath of a large scale catastrophe, the first days are spent surviving, fueled with adrenaline and breaking news.

Then we began to look at this more closely: Act of God ? or Man's folly.

Researching, reporting disaster

After the storm, the Herald assigned a team of reporters to find out what went wrong. What they found was that shoddy construction was responsible for much of the damage.

For the special section, What Went Wrong?, published in December, 1992.

The reporting team first hired a structural engineer to inspect damaged homes. The engineer found flaws and violations.

Using public records, the Herald found:

* Homes built after 1980 were 68% more likely to be uninhabitable after Andrew.
* The South Florida Building Code, touted to be the best in the nation, was steadily weakened since its adoption in 1957.
* Enforcement of the code was inefficient and haphazard. The team found records of inspectors claiming to perform 80 inspection a day.
* The board overseeing the code was dominated by the building industry.

The public records used:

* The minutes of every meeting by the Board of Rules and Appeals since 1958.
* They compared copies of the original code and the one in place when Andrew hit.
* They looked at computer records, personnel files, damage reports and mileage logs of inspectors.

We looked at the finger-pointing, and the research included CAR projects with government data like the tax rolls. We looked at campaign contributions for 10 years; had someone type them in so we could look at correlation with zoning and building issues.

Using the tax rolls (which we had on hand) and the reports the county went out to gather which provided a crude evaluation of damage, house-by-house, we were able to map the catastrophe. With the address as a link, the reporters were able to support the argument that some of Andrew's devastation was the folly of government and man. We tried looking at red cross data, it was descriptive but not quantitative, i.e. (corner of elm and main 50 houses destroyed). The county records we did use were house-to- house; - around 60,000 reports were recorded and examined. We merged the databases and produced that special section.

Remember when working with agencies in a large scale disaster that the people you are working with may be suffering terrible personal loss, reeling from exhaustion. And with so much of the public needing the support and help from local government, the demands are heavy on those resources. Be sensitive. In Dade, the agencies were fielding so many requests, the county literally ran out of paper. Our team of reporters arrived with their own.

Research will let you report how it could be worse, probabilities research helps you do theoretical disaster: if you had one, where would it be worse ? It gives you a worse case scenario for a plausible disaster.

Where Andrew hit, the population, while large, was not as dense as it is in other parts of the county. house were generally insured. we have found if Andrew had hit a 15 miles north , it would have been worse: the port, the airport, greater loss of life because of the structures, and uninsured buildings.

We were able to track what happened to small businesses in the affected areas by using the county's occupational licenses database for months to come.


Weather produces lots of data, and most of it has been collected for 100 years or so.

Weather data and resulting storm data created one other the most popular aspects of our coverage, and that was the graphics.

Weather Underground http://cirrus.sprl.umich.edu/wxnet/

Natl Climate Data Center in Asheville, in addition to the Web site, has computer readable tapes and CD-ROM

* Readers are very interested in weather

The Herald had prior to hurricane Andrew looked at the tracks of hurricanes going back to 1900, which the graphics indicated south Florida was criss crossed with storms, particularly those Category 3 or above. when Andrew hit, we were able to resurrect the 1988 story graphic, which made a compelling case of ever-present danger, (and also shows us there will be other storms.)

This can be done by any news organization on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, because there will be storms.

Washington Post has a vast volunteer network that records local rainfall and temperature, creating basically a micro-map of the metropolitan area, showing the difference in weather in a small radius, and useful in compiling those minute records..

You can recycle this type of information, wet-dry spells, if you are in a drought, etc., rainiest day since 1932, probably to the gratitude of the poor soul who gets all the weather stories in your organization.

When you know things are going to happen in your area, because you understand the climate and topography of your area, you can get detailed history of the area.

For hurricane preparation, the research editor created a spreadsheet with the latitude and longitude of every port in the Caribbean so computing distance is easy. we also have a simple computer program that computes distance between to points, right on our desktops. the template opens with the distance from Miami to Havana, just to show how often we are asked that particular distance.

The value of archives

With downsizing, news organizations no longer maintain staffs that allow for specialties. The archives we build and sell or share, allow a news organization to go from knowing nothing about something to a level of expertise and authority in a few days. Your news organization can produce an intelligent story because information is accessible around the clock

The other thing to consider is that with turnover and the normal cycle of time between disasters occurring again, a lot of institutional memory is lost. Online archives now hold that institutional memory.

If a plane goes down, you have Charlotte's experience and expertise to tap, as we did when we called upon Charlotte after ValuJet disappeared into an Everglades bog. If a plane falls on your town, you have the Lockerbie experience. If your federal building is taken down, your emergency services can look at how other communities handled the stress, as Oklahoma and L.A. did when they called our county' emergency services, who in turn called us with the question, - how do you help the children deal with this catastrophe.


It helps in the event of a disaster to have looked at the reference and resources for research prior to the event, either having worked with it for the occasional story, or CAR project. Our facility and familiarity with the tax assessor's records allowed us to correlate with other facts as they rolled in, to look at the problem in what one editor terms "macro way".

(How many houses were built in a certain year ?)
(How many of these type of houses were clustered where ?)

Have topographical maps, fault-line maps, nautical charts on hand. I heard a speaker at IRE say there is a fault line in Tennessee that if a quake over 5.6 would hit, 10,000 people could die in Memphis alone. Even if you are not in an area that experiences a particular kind of "Act of God", have stuff on hand which will enhance your news organizations "local" coverage of a story, even if it just helps graphically.

The other thing I would strongly urge, is that is something happens in your town that causes loss of life, business, and property, keep those statistics somewhere online if possible. Pay attention to the updating because these figures will conflict, certainly in the early weeks; and possibly over the years.


The other thing we find extremely valuable are the experts source books the universities publish. This is really helpful for the reporter, if you are on the east coast make sure you have a stack of west coast source guides, because you inevitably need them after office hours.

Get copies of the building code to examine closely; have it on hand. After Andrew, we had to scramble because no one thought to have one.

Look at insurance exposure in your state; some 890,000 policies are covered under a very expensive state program after the insurance industry pulled out of Florida.

Every community can have something happen;

If your house burns down, it is a personal disaster. If hundreds of homes burn it is a community disaster.

Comparable earthquake code or windstorm code or flood zoning find out what counties are covered by federal flood insurance; St. Louis found that some counties had dropped out of the program, and lenders were not telling home owners they should have it.

Forest Fire Zones - Are buildings designed properly and streets laid out in communities so people can escape ? Is there a master evacuation plan and has it been published ? Are buildings being built according to code, with the right roof shingles ? What is the chain of command ? Los Angeles learned the even the agencies didn't know how to contact each other during the Laguna Beach fires.

Look at seaports - a conflagration of a container ship could spell a major disaster at the heart of many cities, causing loss of life and economic disruption. Who is regulating the port and what cargo is part of that commerce ?

Less we forget Bhopal, - Chemical Producing Facilities: What are they producing and what precautions are in place, federal, state and local ? Who's monitoring them and when ? Look at schedules.

The same for biomedical research laboratories; what are the safeguards ? Are there inspections and what part of this information is public record ?

Nuclear plants, while not proliferating will exist in to the future. Miami has one. Have your trouble/incident reports already in hand, on computer if possible. Have an incident plan for your newsroom.

If trains travel by, look at hazardous waste moving on those tracks ?

Civil disturbance is a possibility that and urban area could face, with loss of life and considerable property damage.

The Sunshine State Skyway was a disaster that affected people's lives, the long commute around Tampa bay, the economic impact on the area as well as the loss of life.

Find out what is public record and have it on hand, and maintain it.


Helping the reader

The archives proved the hunger for information, individuals coping with personal loss, and businesses struggling.

With Andrew, with large segments of the population without electrical power, television was not an option. We participated with IBM and Lexitech in a database demonstration venture, where our stories were available at kiosks the those companies set up to give people free access to our databases.

Factline, our very young fee based service at the time doubled the calls , and became super-busy for months after the hurricane.

1,000 copies of the graphic maps, - the storm radius sold to FPL ?

FEMA gave out 30,000 of an early HOW TO (rebuild, repair) tabloid.

Subsequent requests for slide shows, book publishing , TV-movies.

HOW TO prepare every hurricane season, downloaded and re-edited

OTHER things may happen that will affect your bottom line:

Bottom Line
  1. Loss of Homestead Air Base (major military installation and draw for retired military. economic base.
  2. Loss of small business advertising. Lots never came back.
  3. 2 year boom in advertising because post-building phase; creating larger newshole and stories for archiving. And then the letdown, as that revenue fades.


In April of 1993, the Miami Herald won the Pulitzer Prize for Meritorious Public Service for coverage of the nation's most devastating hurricane and the aftermath. The public service gold medal was awarded for a body of work including the reporting, the writing, the photos, the graphics, and probably most critically, the ability to print and deliver a newspaper at a time when many in the community were in darkness, powerless in many ways. Many of the victims of the hurricane were our own. This was an honor that 2,400 employees shared. Pressmen and subscriber service reps stood shoulder to shoulder with us in the newsroom; it was a very emotional moment. One editor said: "No one won the Pulitzer Prize today. We all did."


  1. Disaster plan for the newsroom for the company get your company to have a plan in place; reciprocal printing, who has the petty cash, equipment (flashlights, flak jackets, cell phones) organization has to have a plan. At the Miami Herald, having some experience with civil disturbance, there are bullet-prove vests somewhere in a closet.
  2. Have your basic research organized and available easily; and publish location and accessibility. Bookmark weather or earthquake or volcano sites on the Web pages.
  3. Check out what county records are available in what format and have them.
  4. Have the Building or Zoning Code on hand.
  5. Disaster plan for the community
You can report potential disaster; look what's going on in your community; every community could be a target. Everyone does incremental stories through the years, but it would have been nice to have looked at it in terms of what could happen, before.

With Hurricane Andrew, we found flaws in the process that were ongoing for years. The public trusted that when the house was inspected at the point of sale, it met the code.

In most cases we can have some intelligence about what could befall us. As for Andrew, it's pretty obvious that hurricanes hit Florida.

In the Oklahoma City bombing, perhaps no one could anticipate.

The way you react and how prepared you are in the event of a disaster, is the a most essential service to the those you reach. The evidence is clear: as late as May, 1996, the Publisher is still receiving letter from subscribers, appreciating the Herald's presence after Hurricane Andrew.

1996 News Division Program for the SLA Annual Conference
SLA News Division Home

Reformatted on 03/23/03
Jessica Baumgart