Hurricane Michael really was that bad

Hurricane Center reclassifies Michael to Category 5, the first such storm to make landfall since 1992


Category 5 Hurricane Michael at landfall in Florida. (University of Wisconsin at Madison)

April 19 at 12:08 PM

Monster hurricane Michael, which decimated the Florida panhandle last October, is now rated at the top of the scale for classifying these destructive storms.

The National Hurricane Center announced Friday that it had reclassified Michael as a Category 5, up from a Category 4, when it made landfall near Mexico Beach, Fla.

The storm came ashore on the afternoon of Oct. 10, 2018, near Mexico Beach and Tyndall Air Force base, with winds of 140 knots, or 160 mph, the Hurricane Center determined. Category 5, the strongest on the 1-5 Saffir-Simpson scale, begins at 157 mph. Its winds were previously estimated at 155 mph, a high-end Category 4.

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Michael thus becomes the first storm to make landfall as a Category 5 in the United States since Andrew struck southern Florida in August 1992 (Andrew was also upgraded from a Category 4 to a 5 in post-storm analysis). Michael was blamed for 49 deaths and more than $5.5 billion in damage.


Various intensity indicators compared for Hurricane Michael. (National Hurricane Center)

The upgrade comes after the National Hurricane Center sifted through and reanalyzed reams of data. It examined “aircraft winds, surface winds, surface pressures, satellite intensity estimates, and Doppler radar velocities — including data and analyses that were not available in real time,” the Hurricane Center’s post-storm analysis reported.

The change from a high-end Category 4 to a low-end Category 5 is small from a practical standpoint, just a five-knot (6 mph) increase in wind from the initial estimate, but it does solidify Hurricane Michael’s place among powerful storms that have made landfall in the United States.

The Hurricane Center notes that Michael now ranks as the fourth-strongest hurricane on record to make landfall in the United States, trailing only the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935Hurricane Camille in 1969 and Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

It also becomes the third hurricane to strike Florida as a Category 5, and its October landfall made it the latest a storm this strong has ever struck U.S. shores.


Hurricane Michael’s track into the United States. (National Hurricane Center)

In its reanalysis of the storm, the Hurricane Center notes its intensity has an uncertainty margin of plus or minus 10 percent, leaving open the possibility for additional modifications to Michael’s statistics in the future.

While Michael’s Category 5 winds were confined to a relatively small area near its center, its damage was rather extensive, resembling the destruction of a super-wide tornado. In addition to packing 160-mph winds, the storm pushed a 16-foot surge of ocean water onto the coastline and was strengthening right up until the moment its center intercepted land.

Six months after landfall, parts of the region that were hit are still struggling to recover.

The storm mowed down everything in its path — including 72 million tons of timber. While power was quickly restored and roadways cleared and repaired, thousands remain without permanent housing. Some have argued that the region has been forgotten among other disasters.


An excavator tears down a home damaged by Hurricane Michael in Panama City, Fla., on Jan. 25. Weather forecasters have posthumously upgraded last fall’s hurricane from a Category 4 storm to a Category 5. (David Goldman/Associated Press)

Friday’s bump-up in intensity, even if small, may remind the country how devastating Michael was, and perhaps elevate the need for recovery support.

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