Warm waters in the Gulf have strengthened Hurricane Michael even more than most models predicted. Overnight, the storm was upgraded to Category 4, with sustained winds topping 140. This is an extremely dangerous storm. With life-threatening winds, storm surge, heavy rains, and flooding.Those who can move out of the path of the storm should do so immediately. Those in in the path of the storm must seek shelter. The Red Cross and state agencies have shelters available.
No Category 4 or 5 storm has made landfall on the Florida panhandle since storm records have been kept. There really is no other storm to compare with this one in terms of effect on the local area.
At the moment, the storm is on course to make landfall Wednesday evening very near the vacation spot of Panama City. A massive storm surge is being pushed toward the low-lying coast, which is forecast to be worst in the area immediately east of Panama City and south of Tallahassee. Barrier islands are expected to be completely overtopped, and heavy surge will press inland at least 10-15 miles along rivers and bays.
The storm is the worst to hit the area in decades, the worst on record for the Panhandle, and will be the first test for many tall hotels and condo complexes built since the last major storm. Though building standards were sharply improved after the destruction of Hurricane Andrew, poor policies in the state, which have emphasized development over safety, put residents at risk. As with many areas of the state, Panama City has added many new homes and buildings since the last time a major hurricane came ashore nearby. Winds several stories up on taller buildings can be expected to be 20+ mph higher than the recorded speeds at ground level, subjecting these buildings, and those standards, to a severe test of the ability to the new standards to face a major storm.
A large part of the region most threatened by surge is more sparsely populated than much of the coast, with a number of wildlife preserves and natural areas. But sparsely populated doesn’t mean not populated. A number of small towns and rural areas could be inundated by the storm.
In other circumstances, Michael could be even more devastating. But the Gulf waters it’s now moving over aren’t just warm, they’re shallow. That places limits on the mass of water available to be pushed forward in the surge, and should help make the difference between awful and truly terrible. It’s going to be bad. It could be worse. But that’s going to be little consolation for those facing a wall of water that surges 10’ or more above ground level.