Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Shooting Breeze With Guy Whose Eyes Are on Storms : The Hurricane Center director recalls Florida's disaster and talks about the possible dangers in the current season.

June 02, 1993|MIKE CLARY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MIAMI — Robert C. Sheets, director of the National Hurricane Center, became a familiar face to millions last August, appearing hourly on TV to warn of the approach of Hurricane Andrew, which killed 15 people and became the most costly natural disaster in U.S. history.

In 30 years as a meteorologist, Sheets, 55, has flown into the eyes of hurricanes more than 200 times. He tracked Andrew even as it threatened to blow apart his sixth-floor Coral Gables office. Two days after the storm passed, Sheets finally got a chance to go home. He found a tree poking through his roof, and $40,000 in damage.

In this interview, he talks about dangers in this year's six-month hurricane season, which officially began Tuesday:

*

Question: Last week, NBC aired a television movie on Hurricane Andrew in which you were portrayed. Did it capture the hurricane experience?

Answer: It was good in the sense of helping people understand what hurricanes can do and making them prepare. But it didn't capture the magnitude of the problem, the things people went through. Like (suggesting that) not having a phone for a few days, or power for two weeks, would be bad. Here we are, nine months later, and 100,000 people are not back in their homes in South Dade (County) . . . . It didn't capture the ferocity of the storm.

*

Q: You were here in the Hurricane Center, rather than at home. Would you have liked to have been out there to experience it?

A: Oh, no. I don't have any death wish. When you think about the terror people went through, the isolated family, everything falling apart around them, that was real terror.

*

Q: Do you think people around the country know what a hurricane is?

A: People in South Dade do. But I have not spoken to one person--journalists, emergency management people, people who have been through other hurricanes--who, even after seeing everything on TV, were not shocked when they got to South Dade.

*

Q: What are the most vulnerable areas of the U.S. coast?

A: Well, in potential loss of life--the Florida Keys, New Orleans.

*

Q: Why?

A: Water over the roads. New Orleans has a levee system. With Andrew, we came within a gnat's eyelash of a direct hit. Twenty miles further to the north, it's a direct hit on New Orleans.

*

Q: How many people might have died?

A: Depends on evacuation. They did evacuate about 1.2 million people in the Louisiana area.

*

Q: And the Keys?

A: Because of what the Keys are doing, I feel much more comfortable than I did in years past. They have a "last resort refuge" plan where they say, if you haven't crossed this point by this time, then you have to stay in a building identified as the best we can do. Not safe, but it's a shelter and better than being caught on the road.

*

Q: No one else has done this?

A: No. And the same kind of thing exists in Port Aransas, Tex., for example. Ten thousand people--and the only way off is through a ferry system into Corpus Christi. But the ferry quits when winds get to 35 miles an hour . . . . So what is the plan? There is no plan. I don't think that's a responsible way to deal with the problem.

*

Q: About probability: People say, "We had a big hurricane last year. We can't have another one this year."

A: Right. People ask me that and I tell them that the likelihood of getting an Andrew this year is the same of getting an Andrew last year. It didn't change the probabilities . . . .

We do know that storms come in cycles. In the 1940s we had major storms over South Florida in '44, '45, '47, '48, '49 and two in 1950. But in a statistical sense, the probablity this year is the same.

*

Q: You were tracking Hurricane Andrew while it was also blasting you. How did that go?

A: At the Hurricane Center, the satellite antenna blew away, but we had a backup computer link. The radar antenna blew away. We had emergency generators, but the building's emergency generator didn't work. So we had to shut down computers because of heat . . . . Almost everything that could go wrong did, except for phone lines. They stayed up. But we never missed an advisory.

*

Q: Do you look forward to this season with anticipation?

A: Apprehension. Certainly, if there is any potential threat to South Dade, that is a big, big concern. There is so much openness there, structures that are just halfway built. A tropical storm will give us big problems in South Dade; it won't take a hurricane . . . .

I'm still trying to get the tile on my own roof. Only about 15% of people in South Dade are totally back in place, with everything done. And I'm not one of them.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|