A Look Back at Hurricane Michael

Three hundred and sixty-five days have passed since Hurricane Michael crashed into the Florida Panhandle, causing utter devastation. Michael made history as the first Category 5 hurricane (the highest category of the Saffir-Simpson scale with winds over 157 miles per hour) to make landfall in the Unites States since Andrew in 1992. It was also the first Category 5 hurricane on record to impact the Florida Panhandle.

Hurricane Michael beginning to make landall on October 10, 2018. Courtesy NASA

Micheal originated from a broad low-pressure area that formed in the southwestern Caribbean Sea on October 1 and became a tropical depression six days later. After nearly a week of slowly strengthening, Michael shifted gears and began to intensify rapidly, becoming a hurricane on October 8 and a major hurricane by October 9. Sustained winds peaked at 160 miles per hour as the storm raced northward. On October 10, 2018, Michael made landfall on the Gulf Coast of the United States near Mexico Beach, Florida.

The eye of Hurricane Michael near peak intensity, seen from the International Space Station on October 10. Courtesy: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

While the storm was originally considered to be a Category 4 hurricane, the National Hurricane Center performed a post-season reanalysis (something they routinely do for every tropical cyclone in their area of responsibility) and concluded that Michael was in fact a Category 5 storm. Michael maintained Category 5 intensity for less than an hour and began to rapidly weaken once inland. As it moved northeast, Michael weakened to a tropical storm over Georgia and transitioned to an extratropical cyclone over southern Virginia late on October 11.

Hurricane Micheal moving onshore. Courtesy NWS Mobile/Pensacola

Michael was the third-most intense Atlantic hurricane to make landfall in the contiguous United States (falling behind the 1935 Labor Day hurricane and Hurricane Camille in 1969) in terms of pressure and the fourth-strongest in terms of wind speed. The storm produced catastrophic damage from wind speed and storm surge, particularly in the Panama City, Mexico Beach, and Cape San Blas areas. In response to these strong winds, the NWS office in Tallahassee issued its first ever Extreme Wind Warning (EWW), a warning that is very rarely used within the NWS. The warning was issued at 11:11 am EDT and encompassed the entirety of Gulf County, Southern Bay County, and Southwestern Franklin County. Shortly after, three more EWWs were issued as the storm progressed inland. Even counties such as Seminole in Georgia and Houston in Alabama had EWWs.

Mexico Beach. Courtesy NWS Tallahassee.

In addition to extensive structural damage, the hurricane-force winds caused widespread power outages across a large portion of the tri-state region. Nearly 100% of customers across a large portion of the Florida Panhandle lost power, with some of these outages lasting weeks. These widespread power outages extended into southwest Georgia with 100% of customers losing power all the way up to Lee County, GA. Throughout six different states, over two million people lost power. The catastrophic winds also impacted the timber and agricultural communities in Florida and Georgia. According to the Florida Forest Service, in Florida, timber damage costs estimates were over $1.2 billion dollars with almost 3 million acres of forested land damaged. In addition to damage costs, replanting in the more severely damaged areas could be an addition $240 million. This damage also had impacts to the wildfire potential with additional forest fuels from downed trees. In Georgia, 2,368,226 acres of forestland was impacted by Hurricane Michael. The estimated value of this land is $762,683,909. Total damage costs associated with Michael were around 25 billion dollars.

Courtesy NWS Tallahassee.

Areas from Mexico Beach to Indian Pass were struck the hardest by storm surge, where 9 to 14 feet of peak storm surge inundation was observed. In addition, wave action caused even higher total water values and this resulted in waves destroying the second story of multiple buildings in Mexico Beach. At St. Joseph State Park on Cape San Blas, the storm surge cut through the Peninsula, creating two inlets, resulting in portions of the park that are no longer accessible by vehicle.

Storm surge damage at Mexico Beach. Photo courtesy NWS Tallahassee.

Fortunately, since Michael tracked over the area quickly, inland flooding associated with the storm was limited in the United States. In fact, the highest rainfall totals were seen in Georgia, not Florida. A maximum rainfall total of 6.84 inches was observed near Crossroads, Georgia. Higher amounts like this were isolated, and only a few areas of inland flooding were observed. Although Michael produced 16 known tornadoes (with 7 of those in Virginia), the tornadoes were all rated EF-0 or EF-1 and produced only minor damage.

16 deaths have been directly attributed to Michael. Five people drowned due to storm surge, six died due to falling trees, and five died due to freshwater flooding. All five deaths associated with storm surge occurred in storm surge evacuation zones in Florida, and all deaths associated with flooding occurred in Virginia. The remaining six deaths associated with falling trees occurred in Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina. Michael is also responsible for 43 currently-known indirect deaths, all in Florida. The causes of the indirect deaths included falls during the post-storm clean-up, traffic accidents, and medical issues compounded by the hurricane. The hurricane caused no known casualties in western Cuba, although the precursor area of low pressure associated with Michael caused a prolonged period of rainfall over portions of Central America, which caused significant freshwater flooding and directly caused 15 deaths.

The historic, powerful, and deadly storm occurred one year ago, and recovery is still underway for several communities and families. Based on the overall impact , the name “Michael” has been retired as a hurricane name. Several cities and organizations across the Panhandle are hosting special events this week to mark the one year anniversary of Hurricane Michael.

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