Hurricane Andrew’s 30th anniversary

  • Published
  • By Mr. Robert H. Clark, 482nd Fighter Wing Historian
  • 482nd Fighter Wing

Built in 1942, Homestead Army Airfield was destroyed three years later, on Sept. 15, 1945, by a hurricane with winds of 145 miles per hour.

HAAF was officially abandoned three months later. In the three years it was open, the airfield trained hundreds of Air Force pilots who then went on to fly the Berlin Airlift of 1948.

The base was rebuilt in 1955 and played a significant role in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, with bombers and fighter planes placed on high alert and a tent city of 10,000 Army troops occupied the base.

Fast forward to 1992, and, coincidentally, another tent city was erected on Homestead Air Force Base to deal with the destruction from another hurricane.

On August 24, 1992, Hurricane Andrew devastated HAFB with unimaginable damage. Andrew caused a tremendous amount of human suffering and billions of dollars of damage in the Bahamas, the southern tip of Florida, and parts of Louisiana.

The hurricane pushed across southern Florida with winds of up to 180 mph, carving a path of destruction and leaving one million people without power before churning through Florida's west coast and into the Gulf of Mexico.

Preparation and mitigation were equally as important then as they are today for base leadership.

Just before Hurricane Andrew hit South Florida, all but two of the base’s F-16s Fighting Falcons found safety at Shaw AFB in South Carolina. By the time base personnel and aircraft had been evacuated from HAFB, Hurricane Andrew strengthened to a category five storm at landfall, with maximum sustained winds of 165 mph and gusts up to 180 mph.

It was one of only four hurricanes to make landfall in the United States as a category five hurricane since 1900. The others being the 1935 Florida Keys Labor Day storm, Hurricane Camille in 1969 and Hurricane Michael in 2018.

Col. Stephen B. Plummer, the 31st Fighter Wing Commander, and fourteen other mission essential personnel rode out Hurricane Andrew in building 877, the Florida National Guard alert facility, in what they thought was a hurricane proof building.

The damage to the Homestead area was record breaking with Hurricane Andrew being the costliest hurricane in U.S. history until Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005.

On the base, all operations and maintenance buildings, the commissary and the Post Exchange were obliterated. All of the remaining 200 public buildings lost their roofs. Two hangars were destroyed, along with the two F-16s left inside, valued at $14 million each.

The Pentagon stated that the roofs had also been blown off of half the housing on base and windows had been shattered in 90 percent of the houses. In all, more than 1,750 buildings on HAFB were partially or completely destroyed. Damage estimates totaled nearly $780 million.

Miraculously, no injuries were reported. At least 70 percent of the base’s buildings were unusable. Flying debris broke most windows, causing overpressure inside, which popped the roofs. Once damaged, the wind merely peeled off.

One million people were evacuated and several people died due to the storm. Fifteen direct deaths and 28 indirect deaths were attributed to Andrew in South Florida, all but three of those occurred in Dade County.

Once the storm passed and winds subsided, Plummer initiated one of the largest clean-up and salvage operations in peacetime history of the military.

A 150-person reconstitution team returned to the base and started initial clean-up and security tasks.

Within 24-hours, the received visits from then-President George H.W. Bush, then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, Gen. John Loh, Air Combat Command Commander, and other high ranking dignitaries. By the end of September 1992, a total of 68 distinguished visitors came to the base.

Both presidential candidates at the time toured the base and left promising to reopen HAFB. President Bush toured heavily damaged areas and signed a federal disaster declaration for Dade, Broward, and Monroe counties.

During the clean-up, nearly 25,000 troops worked in the area with tent cities created all around Dade County. The Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, patrolled neighborhoods for looters, served meals, pulled wet carpets out of houses and provided medical care for victims.

Although the air traffic control tower was destroyed, a mobile control tower was set up and the base began receiving relief supplies. An average of 84 relief airlift flights per day flew into the base. During the initial relief efforts, 23,000 military personnel passed through the base before deploying to locations in the South Dade County area.

The base was already being considered for closing before the hurricane. It was on the Base Closure and Realignment Commission's initial base closings list. The community fought the closure. Busloads of community members traveled to Orlando to appear before the BRAC committee to plead for the reopening of the base.

As a result of that advocacy, the BRAC committee recommended reopening of the base as an Air Reserve Station, which subsequently succeeded. Regional closure hearings were held in Orlando in May 1993. When the final listing was sent to then-President Clinton, HAFB was no longer slated for complete closure.

In a twist of a fate, the once tenant reserve fighter wing on HAFB was then assigned as the installation host wing. The 482nd Fighter Wing had to temporarily relocate their F-16A and B model aircraft to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, which housed the aircraft and essential personnel until April 1993.

The 482nd then relocated to MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, for one year. Twenty F-16s of the 93rd Fighter Squadron returned to Homestead Air Station to resume training operations from their temporary home at MacDill in March 1994. On April 1, 1994, the base re-opened once again with the 482nd FW becoming the installation host command unit.

This year, we commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the storm that changed the structure and mission of the base and also look back to its historic splendor.