BIRTH OF A MONSTER
In the first week of October 2018, a cluster of thunderstorms was observed off the Yucatan peninsula. On October 6, the system was declared a potential tropical cyclone. On the 7th, the strengthening tropical storm was named Michael. On October 8, Hurricane Michael was being tracked and expected to hit the Florida Panhandle by the middle of the week, a Category 2 or 3 storm. Michael, however, wasn’t finished strengthening, it’s barometric pressure continuing its downward trend.
According to a National Geographic article posted by Sarah Gibbons, “Warm waters, low wind shear, and a tight core are the three most essential features hurricane’s need to gain strength.” Michael took advantage of all three as he moved into the Gulf of Mexico and over the course of the night on October 9, became catastrophically strong.
On October 10, 2018, Hurricane Michael made landfall at 12:15 pm along the Florida Panhandle. A deadly Category 4 storm with sustained winds of 155 mph, gusts reaching a staggering 185 mph, and a minimum central pressure of 919 mb. Michael made his presence known as the third strongest hurricane on record to hit the U.S.
PREPARATION NOT ENOUGH
In the days prior, residents had prepared, waited, and watched. Evacuation zones had been established by the Emergency Operations Centers of the cities directly in its path. Those within the affected areas had either evacuated or prepared to ride out the storm.
Tuesday night, October 9, residents went to bed to a potential Category 2 or 3 storm. Many had remained through Opal (1995) and Ivan (2004) and felt confident they could weather this one as well. Overnight though, the monster grew and by 4:00 am, Michael had reached Category 4, almost Category 5 status.
Within hours the potential Category 3 impact had grown into a nightmare of monster proportions. Residents rushed to get to safety or hunkered down where they were, hoping, praying for a miracle.
“I think that if people are comparing storms, what was really fascinating was that Michael was still intensifying when it was making landfall, which is similar to Hurricane Camille also intensifying as it moved inland,” said AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Dan Kottlowski in an article posted by Time. “Other storms like Hurricane Opal in 1995 actually went from a Category 4 to 3, just like most storms that make landfall on the Gulf Coast tend to weaken.”
According to a National Geographic article posted on October 11, Hurricane Michael had one last reconnaissance aircraft mission before landfall. Which actually suggested it was strengthening leading up to its Florida strike, with reports that the flight level winds had increased, and pressure had continued to drop even further to 917 mb.
According to a Tallahassee Democrat post, “Michael’s intensification began on Tuesday, October 9 and continued until the minute it made landfall. In that 36-hour time-frame, Michael’s maximum sustained winds increased by 55 knots while central pressure plunged by 54 millibars.”
Michael’s intensification had catastrophic implications for the Florida Panhandle, as peak winds slammed into the area, meeting or exceeding the 155-mph documented speed. “Hurricanes intensifying prior to landfall are able to carry destructive winds much farther inland than non-intensifying storms, particularly when coupled with Michael’s forward speed exceeding 15 mph,” the Democrat reported.
Hurricane Michael’s intensification from a Category 2 to a Category 4 hurricane occurred in a matter of hours over the course of Tuesday night, October 9. Residents awoke to a dramatically different scenario than the one they had gone to bed with that evening. The window of opportunity to evacuate had already closed. People were forced to attempt to reach rapidly filling shelters or to ride out the storm in their homes.
In an October 10, teleconference organized by FEMA, Brad Kieserman, vice-president for disaster operations and logistics for the American Red Cross said, “This storm went from a tropical storm to a projected CAT 3 at landfall in six hours yesterday. It’s not behaving normally. It intensified extremely quickly. It didn’t give anyone time to do much. And the one thing you can’t get back in a disaster is time.”
As the sun was beginning to set on the evening of October 10, residents in the path of Hurricane Michael emerged to a nightmare. Franklin County Sheriff, A.J. Smith told the Washington Post, “We’re kind of getting crushed, it’s horrific.”
Search and recovery began immediately with teams from around Florida deployed to the Panhandle. In Mexico Beach, where the eye of the storm crossed, rescue teams used dogs to comb through piles of rubble and mangled structures of the once pristine seaside town. Authorities say it could be weeks or months before anything approaching “normal” returns to the region.
In the first few weeks following the storm, residents in the Florida Panhandle struggled to come to grips with the destruction of their homes and cities. Many who have returned since the storm are living in campers, tents or bunking with neighbors, and relying on portable toilets and boxed ready-to-eat meals provided by FEMA, the Red Cross or other volunteers,” reported The Guardian.
Like the felled trees, power poles were snapped by the 155-mph wind, power lines were downed by trees and limbs, and substations were damaged leaving literally hundreds of thousands without power. Linemen from all over the country worked 16-hour days trying to restore power. In all, about 6,000 tree service and line workers were deployed to the area within a matter of hours, The Pensacola News Journal reported.
Relief efforts were still ongoing as of October 31, three weeks following the storm.
© 2018 Jennifer N. Fenwick