As Hurricane Michael rapidly closes in on the Florida Panhandle, the National Weather Service issued a rare extreme wind warning, only hoisted when winds are forecast to reach 115 mph.
The warning, which was in response to exceptionally strong winds within Michael’s eyewall, applied to Gulf County and southern Bay County in Florida’s Panhandle and southwest Franklin County in the Big Bend area. It was also expanded north into inland counties after Michael came ashore.
“THIS IS AN EXTREMELY DANGEROUS AND LIFE-THREATENING SITUATION,” the warning stated.
The eyewall is the most intense part of a hurricane. Here, winds converge and rise, feeding towering thunderstorms. Winds much faster than 100 miles per hour, blinding rain and embedded tornado-like vortexes add insult to injury as the eye carves a path of destruction.
Extreme wind warnings were issued during the landfalls of Harvey, Irma and Maria in 2017, and the areas under those warnings experienced catastrophic damage equivalent to that of a 15-mile-wide tornado.
How to stay safe: Treat the eyewall like a tornado.
Eyewall winds within major hurricanes such as Michael can produce “swaths of tornado-like damage.” The onset of eyewall winds happens quickly — within a matter of minutes.
Find shelter in a far-interior location, as far away from any windows as possible. Shards of glass launched at highway speeds can become lethal projectiles in mere seconds. Have a blanket, pillows, and/or a mattress handy at your place of shelter for extra layers of protection. Cover your face and head first, and then place the mattress atop your body to shield against potential structural failure or wall/ceiling collapse.
If you live near the coastal storm surge or in an inland area prone to freshwater inundations, you may be dealing with flooding as well. Do not enter floodwaters to escape the wind. Floodwater could be electrified or contain harmful chemicals or sewage.
The extreme wind warning was created out of necessity following confusion during Hurricane Katrina. National Weather Service offices in Louisiana and Mississippi issued 11 tornado warnings, not for actual tornadoes but for high-wind spots in the track of Katrina’s furious eyewall.
Robert Ricks, lead forecaster at the National Weather Service in Slidell, La., was crucial in public communication leading up to and during Katrina. He was on shift when the tornado warnings were issued for the eyewall.
“We had a visiting/deployed meteorologist from Melbourne, Fla. that actually issued those warnings,” Ricks wrote in a 2013 email interview. “He was instrumental with the initial issuance and development of such warnings at his home office in Melbourne during Hurricanes Charley and Jeanne in 2004. It was NWS policy to issue ‘eyewall wind warnings’ that are more like hyper tornado warnings when we are dealing with Cat-3 or higher hurricanes.”
Cheryl Grabowski, Osceola County Emergency Management director at the time, was quoted by the National Weather Service describing these types of warnings as “fantastic” and a “stroke of genius for getting onto the Emergency Alert System.” The main reason the tornado warnings were favored was because they triggered automated television and radio interruptions through the emergency alert system. The newly minted extreme wind warning will do the same.