Hurricane Michael made landfall near Panama City, Florida, today as an incredibly strong hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 155 MPH. This is one of the strongest hurricanes to ever make landfall in the United States, and the worst hurricane ever recorded at landfall on the Florida Panhandle. People who remain in the historic storm’s path—either by choice or circumstance—find themselves in grave danger from the hurricane’s unprecedented wind and flooding.
Hurricane Hunter aircraft continued to fly through Michael all the way until it made landfall around 1:30 p.m. EDT on Wednesday. The hurricane peaked with maximum sustained winds of 155 MPH and a minimum central pressure of 919 mb as it crossed the coast just southeast of Panama City, Florida. The weather station at Tyndall Air Force Base recorded a wind gust of 129 MPH before the calm eye of the storm moved overhead. Storm surge flooding of more than seven feet above ground level was recorded in Apalachicola, a town several dozen miles from the point of landfall but located along a part of the coast that’s extremely susceptible to storm surge.
There is simply no precedent for a storm this strong striking this part of Florida. All of the Panhandle’s previous storms that serve as benchmarks—Dennis in 2005, Ivan in 2004, Opal in 1995, Eloise in 1975—hit farther west than Michael, and weren’t anywhere near as strong. Hurricane Michael is truly the worst-case scenario.
In fact, the storm’s strength makes it the third-most intense landfalling hurricane in the entire United States, coming in behind 1969’s Hurricane Camile and the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, which saw a record-low landfall pressure of 892 mb.
In terms of winds, we haven’t seen a storm this strong strike the United States since Hurricane Andrew hit southern Florida in 1992. Andrew made landfall with category five winds of 160 MPH, just a little stronger than Michael. The last time a comparable, high-end category four hurricane made landfall was when Charley hit Punta Gorda, Florida, with 150 MPH winds in August 2004. That storm’s winds and surge killed 10 people, severely damaging the towns of Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte.
Michael took advantage of extremely warm waters, low wind shear, and ample moisture to explode to its monstrous strength. When you consider the relative lack of storms in the Gulf of Mexico, as well as the unusually warm weather that’s bathed the eastern United States for most of the summer and fall, it was a perfect recipe for the waters of the eastern Gulf to warm almost uninterrupted all season. These waters helped fuel the hurricane to its historic proportions.
The explosive intensification of this hurricane highlights the urgent need to heed evacuation orders when they’re issued. Many coastal residents—especially in hurricane-prone states like Florida—won’t evacuate ahead of a storm until it reaches a certain category on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale. There are many anecdotal reports on social media that more people than usual chose not to evacuate ahead of the storm because it wasn’t strong enough to warrant leaving until it was too late to leave at all. Not only is it a bad idea to judge a hurricane solely on its category, but a storm can rapidly intensify on its final approach to land and trap people who thought they were staring down a much weaker cyclone.
It’s important to note that Hurricane Michael won’t immediately wind down as it pushes ashore. Hurricane force winds are likely as the core of the storm tracks through Florida and into southeastern Alabama and central Georgia. Michael will only weaken to a tropical storm as it approaches the Carolinas on Wednesday night.
Communities along the path of the storm between Florida and North Carolina can expect up to half a foot of rain, which could lead to flash flooding, especially in areas affected by Hurricane Florence last month. Widespread power outages are likely from the point of landfall straight across the path of the storm through the southeast. Many power outages in the hardest-hit areas will likely last for weeks.