Hurricane Michael is strengthening as it enters the Gulf of Mexico, and is aimed at Florida. The storm is expected to become a Category 3 hurricane by the time it reaches Florida’s Gulf Coast on Wednesday. It will probably be the area’s strongest hurricane in at least 13 years.
Both Florida’s Panhandle, from Pensacola to Apalachicola, and its Big Bend area are the zones of greatest concern. This area faces the possibility of coastal inundation from rising ocean waters, flooding rain and destructive winds starting Tuesday night and continuing through Wednesday.
“#Michael could be one of the worst hurricanes to ever strike the Florida Big Bend and Florida Panhandle region,” tweeted Rick Knabb, the Weather Channel’s hurricane expert. “We only have today and Tuesday to complete life-saving preparations.”
The National Hurricane Center warned of a “life-threatening storm surge,” which is the rise in ocean water above normally dry land. It could reach at least 8 to 12 feet in hardest hit areas, inundating roads, homes and businesses. Mandatory evacuations were ordered in parts of Florida’s Gulf County, which is between Panama City and Apalachicola.
Serious hurricane effects will not be restricted to coastal areas and may extend farther inland, potentially affecting the Tallahassee area.
The last major hurricane, Category 3 or higher, to strike the Florida Panhandle was Opal in 1995.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) declared a state of emergency for 26 counties in Florida’s Panhandle and Big Bend areas. “Families should take the opportunity TODAY to make sure they have three days of food and water, as well as all needed medications,” he tweeted. “EVERY FAMILY must be prepared. We can rebuild your home, but we cannot rebuild your life.”
After making landfall on Wednesday, Michael’s effects are expected to surge northward. “[H]eavy rainfall from Michael could produce life-threatening flash flooding from the Florida Panhandle and Big Bend region into portions of the Carolinas through Thursday,” including some of the same areas flooded by Hurricane Florence, the National Hurricane Center warned.
While destructive hurricane-force winds were forecast to be confined mostly to Florida, damaging tropical-storm-force winds were predicted to affect a much larger area, potentially expanding north into the Carolinas.
As of 2 p.m. Eastern, Michael’s peak winds were at hurricane strength, sustained at 75 mph, as it moved north at 7 mph. It was centered just 20 miles from the western tip of Cuba, which was getting lashed by heavy rain and strong winds.
The storm, the seventh Atlantic hurricane of 2018, was starting to form an eye Monday morning. Traveling over very warm waters, with light upper-level winds, it could rapidly intensify over the next 24 to 36 hours, the National Hurricane Center said.
At its current rate of speed, tropical-storm-force winds should reach the northern Gulf Coast as early as Tuesday evening, after which conditions will steadily deteriorate. Landfall is projected during Wednesday — although models differ on whether it will occur early in the day or late in the day.
Hurricane watches have been posted from the Alabama/Florida border to the Suwannee River, which is just northwest of Cedar Key on Florida’s west coast. Tropical storm watches extend farther south through the Tampa Bay area to Anna Maria Island, Fla., and, to the west, along the Alabama coast.
Storm surge watches are in effect from Navarre, Fla., which is east of Pensacola, to Anna Maria Island, including Tampa Bay.
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 be able push a vast amount of ocean water inland, potentially inundating homes, roads and businesses on the coast.
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. High tides are extra high this week because of the new moon Tuesday.
Storm surges just east of where the center makes landfall could reach 8 to 12 feet, if the storm comes ashore around high tide. Here are specific initial storm surge projections from the Hurricane Center:
- Indian Pass to Crystal River: 8-12 feet
- Okaloosa/Walton County Line to Indian Pass: 5-8 feet
- Crystal River to Anclote River: 4-6 feet
- Anclote River to Anna Maria Island including Tampa Bay: 2-4 feet
- Navarre to Okaloosa/Walton County Line: 2-4 feet
Weather Underground’s Jeff Masters and Bob Henson projected the surge could even reach 19 feet in a worst-case scenario. “There are very shallow waters along the coast where Michael is expected to make landfall, where the continental shelf extends out about 70-90 miles from shore,” they wrote. “The winds from the storm will thus be able to pile up a large storm surge along the east side of the storm’s center.”
The National Hurricane Center projects widespread rainfall amounts of 4 to 8 inches from the Florida Panhandle and Big Bend areas north into the Carolinas, with isolated amounts of up to a foot. “This rainfall could lead to life-threatening flash floods,” it said.
Flooding rainfall is likely to affect some of the areas recovering from Hurricane Florence.
Heavy rain could first arrive in Florida on Tuesday night and in south Alabama and south Georgia early Wednesday. By Wednesday night and into Thursday, heavy rain will rapidly streak north through north Georgia and into the Carolinas.
The rain is expected to reach the Mid-Atlantic, including Virginia, Maryland and Washington on 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.
The potential rainfall in the Mid-Atlantic and New England ranges from 2 to 4 inches with locally higher amounts. As these areas have seen heavy rain in recent weeks, flooding may become a concern here as well.
Michael’s maximum sustained winds are forecast to be around 120 mph when it strikes the coast. Winds this strong will be confined to the ring around its calm eye, known as the eyewall, and “devastating” wind damage could occur in this narrow zone. “Well-built framed homes may incur major damage or removal of roof decking and gable ends,” the National Hurricane Center said. “Many trees will be snapped or uprooted, blocking numerous roads. Electricity and water will be unavailable for several days to weeks after the storm passes.”
After the storm strikes land, this eyewall 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 winds of 39 to 73 mph will occur over a much larger zone and could potentially result in minor structural damage and many downed trees and power outages.
Elsewhere in the tropical Atlantic
Tropical Storm Leslie — which formed Sept. 23 — is still active and probably will be through the weekend. It is forecast to become a hurricane, again, as it heads toward the Azores by the end of the week. And for being around for 16 days, it is presently centered just 115 miles from where it was when it formed.
Finally, a potent weather disturbance that recently left the coast of Africa is located near the Cabo Verde Islands and has a shot at becoming at least a tropical depression this week, if not a tropical storm, before conditions become more hostile by the weekend. The National Hurricane Center is giving it a 50 percent chance of reaching tropical depression status this week, but no models suggest this will become a threat to land. The next name on the list is Nadine.