On Tuesday evening, Michael’s peak winds rose to 125 mph — a strong Category 3 — while the National Hurricane Center said the storm was “getting much better organized” and is now forecast to strike Florida as a Category 4.
Florida’s Panhandle, from Pensacola to Apalachicola, and its Big Bend area are the zones of greatest concern. Michael is poised to push ashore a “life-threatening” surge of ocean water that could inundate more than 325 miles of coastline. The storm also will bring destructive winds and flooding rain throughout Wednesday.
Population centers that could witness some of the most severe hurricane effects include Fort Walton Beach, Destin, Panama City Beach and Apalachicola.
The surge, or the rise in ocean water above normally dry land along the coast, could reach nine to 13 feet in the hardest-hit areas, inundating roads, homes and businesses. Mandatory evacuations have been ordered in several Florida counties.
“The window of time to prepare is closing,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) tweeted Tuesday. “This is a serious and life-threatening situation — don’t take any chances. If you have been told to evacuate, leave.”
Devastating hurricane effects are expected to expand inland far beyond the coast.
“A potentially catastrophic event is developing,” wrote the National Weather Service forecast office serving Tallahassee and surrounding areas. The office warned of “widespread power outages, downed trees blocking access to roads and endangering individuals, structural damage to homes and businesses, isolated flash flooding and the potential for a few tornadoes.”
Damaging winds and flooding rain were also predicted to reach southern Georgia and southeast Alabama on Wednesday.
“This will not be just a coastal event, with dangerous winds and flooding rains spreading far inland over the southeastern U.S.,” said Rick Knabb, the Weather Channel’s hurricane expert. “Shelter from hurricane-force winds like you would for a tornado, and don’t stay in mobile homes, even for a tropical storm.”
By Wednesday night and Thursday, heavy rains from Michael are likely to streak into the Carolinas, perhaps bringing more flooding to some of the same areas still recovering from Hurricane Florence.
As of 11 p.m. Eastern time Tuesday, Hurricane Michael’s peak winds were 125 mph, a Category 3, as it moved north at 12 mph. The storm was centered about 220 miles south of Panama City, Fla.
The storm became the second major hurricane of the Atlantic hurricane season Tuesday, joining Florence.
During the evening Tuesday, the storm was “undergoing a rapid deepening phase” the Hurricane Center said, signaling intensification.
Michael was already pushing ocean water above typical levels at the coast Tuesday afternoon, with tides running about two feet above normal along Florida’s Gulf Coast.
Environmental conditions are favorable for Michael to continue strengthening up until landfall, the National Hurricane Center said. Warm waters fuel storm development, and ocean temperatures are two to four degrees above normal. Wind shear, which tends to slow hurricane development, was forecast to ease.
“Michael is now explicitly forecast to become a category 4 hurricane before landfall occurs,” the Hurricane Center said Tuesday night.
At Michael’s current rate of advance, tropical-storm-force winds should reach the northern Gulf Coast very early Wednesday, after which conditions will deteriorate. Landfall is projected for Wednesday afternoon.
Hurricane warnings have been posted from the Alabama-Florida border to the Suwannee River, just northwest of Cedar Key on Florida’s west coast. Tropical storm warnings extend farther south, to Chassahowitzka, and to the west along the Alabama coast. A tropical storm watch is in effect around the Tampa Bay area.
On Tuesday, the Hurricane Center extended tropical storm warnings to the southeast Atlantic coast, from the Florida-Georgia border to around Charleston. A tropical storm watch was issued from north of Charleston, S.C., to Duck, N.C.
Storm surge warnings are in effect from the Okaloosa-Walton county line in Florida to the Anclote River around Tarpon Springs. The Tampa Bay area is under a storm surge watch.
Michael is projected to strike an area that is exceptionally prone to storm surge because of the adjacent shallow shelf water and the concave shape of the coast. Like a bulldozer, the storm will push a vast amount of ocean water inland, potentially inundating homes, roads and businesses.
Areas to the east of where the storm center tracks will experience the greatest storm surge, and flooding will be worst around the high tides.
Storm surges just east of where the center makes landfall could reach eight to 12 feet if the storm comes ashore around high tide. Here are specific storm surge projections from the Hurricane Center for locations in Florida:
- Mexico Beach to Keaton Beach: 9 to 13 feet
- Okaloosa-Walton county line to Mexico Beach: 6 to 9 feet
- Keaton Beach to Cedar Key: 6 to 9 feet
- Cedar Key to Chassahowitzka: 4 to 6 feet
- Chassahowitzka to Anna Maria Island, including Tampa Bay: 2 to 4 feet
- Alabama-Florida border to Okaloosa-Walton county line: 2 to 4 feet
The Hurricane Center projects widespread rainfall amounts of 4 to 8 inches, from the Florida Panhandle and Big Bend areas north into southeast Alabama and southern Georgia, and isolated amounts of up to a foot. “This rainfall could lead to life-threatening flash floods,” it said.
Heavy rain could arrive in Florida on Tuesday night and in southern Alabama and southern Georgia early Wednesday. By Wednesday night and into Thursday, heavy rain will rapidly streak through Georgia and into the Carolinas.
Rainfall of 3 to 6 inches is likely to affect some of the areas recovering from Hurricane Florence in the Carolinas, which could lead to more flooding. Parts of eastern Georgia and southern Virginia may also receive 3 to 6 inches.
The rain is expected to reach the eastern Mid-Atlantic late Wednesday night into Thursday before rapidly exiting by Friday. Depending on the track of Michael’s remnants, southern New England could also see a period of heavy rain late Thursday. One to three inches of rain is most likely in the eastern Mid-Atlantic and southern New England.
Michael’s maximum sustained winds are forecast to be around 130 mph when it strikes the coast. Winds this strong will be confined to the ring around its calm eye, known as the eyewall, and “catastrophic” wind damage could occur in this narrow zone. Here is the damage the Hurricane Center describes associated with Category 4 winds:
Well-built framed homes can sustain severe damage with loss of most of the roof structure and/or some exterior walls. Most trees will be snapped or uprooted and power poles downed. Fallen trees and power poles will isolate residential areas. Power outages will last weeks to possibly months. Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks or months.
After the storm strikes land, this eye wall will quickly collapse and winds will weaken.
While hurricane-force winds of over 74 mph will be confined to a relatively small area, tropical-storm-force winds of 39 to 73 mph will occur over a much larger zone and could result in minor structural damage and many downed trees and power outages. The Weather Service tweeted that tropical-storm-force winds “currently extend more than 300 miles across.”
A computer model run at the University of Michigan projects 2 million customers will lose power, the majority in the Florida Panhandle and southern Georgia.
Michael in historical perspective
Michael may join a very small group of storms that have made landfall as a major hurricane, Category 3 or higher, in the Florida Panhandle and Big Bend areas.
In the area between the Florida-Alabama border and Tampa, 52 hurricanes have made landfall since 1851, but only 12 of them were Category 3 or higher. Hurricane Dennis in 2005 was the last Category 3 or higher storm to strike this region. The only other two major hurricane landfalls since 1950 in this region were Eloise in 1975 and Opal in 1995.
Strong hurricanes are rare in this region because they get cornered in by the surrounding land and often draw in dry continental air that causes weakening.
No storm on record has made landfall in the Florida Panhandle as a Category 4 or 5.
The most recent hurricane of any intensity to come ashore along this stretch of coastline was Hermine in 2016. It made landfall as a Category 1.