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Hurricane Michael intensifies, looms as historic storm for Florida

Satellite image of powerful Hurricane Michael nearing the Panhandle of Florida on October 9, 2018.
Satellite image of intense Hurricane Michael approaching Florida on October 9, 2018.

Hurricane Michael explosively intensified on Tuesday night into a powerful Category 3 storm, and is now forecast to road ashore Wednesday as a Category 4 hurricane in the central Florida Panhandle. Barring a last-minute weakening trend, this would put the storm into the history books as one of the most intense hurricanes ever to strike the Florida Panhandle, with the worst of the storm hitting between Pensacola and Apalachicola.

The big picture: Michael has the potential to cause "catastrophic damage" from strong winds and a potentially huge storm surge that will be pushed into the state's Panhandle and Big Bend region, the National Weather Service says. The storm is moving steadily northward toward the Florida Panhandle, with time having run out for residents to prepare. It is forecast to continue intensifying through the time of landfall sometime Wednesday.

The details: Michael will continue to move through a region of the Gulf of Mexico that is conducive to rapid intensification on Tuesday night into Wednesday, with warm ocean waters to fuel the storm and a lack of impediments in the atmosphere, such as strong wind shear, to limit the hurricane's organization.

  • According to the NWS forecast office in Tallahassee, the storm's intensification means that a "potentially catastrophic event is developing" for that part of Florida.

The threat: Michael's track forecast is likely to bring hurricane-force winds to a large region between Pensacola to Tallahassee, and could do structural damage to buildings large and small. The winds are expected to cause widespread, long-lasting power outages as well. Where the inner core of the storm comes ashore, wind damage could be downright catastrophic.

The water is a bigger threat along the coast, though, as the Big Bend region of Florida is susceptible to large storm surge events due to the presence of a shallow, extended continental shelf and the concave shape of the coastline.

  • The last major hurricane to hit the Florida Panhandle was Category 3 Hurricane Dennis, which struck in 2005.
  • Wind damage from Michael will extend well inland — possibly into Georgia and the Carolinas — as the storm moves at a brisk enough pace to avoid quickly losing its punch.
  • Depending on the exact track, the city of Tallahassee could see winds in excess of 100 mph.

The National Hurricane Center is predicting the following storm surges — described as "life-threatening and historic" — if the storm hits at high tide. The impacts of storm surge are worsening over time due to sea level rise.

  • Mexico Beach to Keaton Beach, Florida: 9–13 feet
  • Keaton Beach to Cedar Key, Florida: 6–9 feet
  • Okaloosa/Walton county line to Mexico Beach, Florida: 6–9 feet
  • Cedar Key to Chassahowitzka, Florida: 4 to 6 feet
  • Chassahowitzka to Anna Maria Island, Florida, including Tampa Bay: 2–4 feet
  • Alabama/Florida border to Okaloosa/Walton county line, Florida: 2–4 feet
Forecast storm surge inundation from Hurricane Michael in a reasonable worst-case scenario.
Forecast storm surge inundation from Hurricane Michael in a reasonable worst-case scenario. Red areas correspond to at least 9 feet of water above normally dry ground.

According to Rick Luettich, director of the Coastal Resilience Center of Excellence at UNC Chapel Hill, the Big Bend of Florida is a "storm surge mecca" due to the shape of the coastline and the shallow waters extending far offshore.

In order to maximize the storm surge, however, Luettich says, “You’ve got to have the storm hit [the coast] just right, and the track of Michael is pretty close to being just right.”

Between the lines: Hurricane Michael is a storm that is making weather forecasters extremely uneasy, due to its tendency to intensify rapidly while aiming at a region that is one of the most vulnerable areas in the Sunshine State for storm surge flooding.

What we're watching: After the storm makes landfall, it is forecast to move north-northeast, into Georgia and the Carolinas — areas that were inundated with historic rainfall amounts from Hurricane Florence in September. Tree damage and power outages could occur far inland from the coast, into Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas in particular.

Storm surge flooding is likely along the Atlantic Coast, too, from Georgia north in North Carolina, as the storm makes its way back out to sea.