Michael became a major hurricane on Tuesday afternoon as it zipped northward across the eastern Gulf of Mexico. As forecasters have suggested for the last day or so, Michael will make landfall on Wednesday, likely during the afternoon hours, along the Florida Panhandle. The most probable landfall location is near Panama City, but even less than 24 hours before landfall, the average position error is 30 to 40 miles.
On Monday and Tuesday, the storm has taken advantage of low wind shear—allowing it to maintain a tight circulation and organized vertical structure—as well as warm, late-summer waters in the Gulf of Mexico to intensify.
Undergoing a spate of rapid intensification, which is not unusual under these ideal conditions for hurricanes to strengthen, Michael has gone from a 40mph tropical storm on 1pm Sunday to a 120-mph major hurricane as 5pm on Tuesday. Needless to say, the storm will have serious consequences for Florida (and downstream states such as Georgia) during the remainder of this week.
Although Michael will produce heavy rain showers, the storm’s accelerating forward movement should allow those downpours to move through and not over-saturate most areas. This is in contrast to recent major storms, such as Harvey in 2017 and Florence in 2018, which made landfall in the United States and then stalled out. The biggest concerns with Michael, therefore, are winds and storm surge.
As of Tuesday evening, Michael had 120mph winds, and it still had another 18 hours or so over open water to intensify before interactions with the US landmass would force some weakening. Officially, the National Hurricane Center predicts the hurricane will come ashore with 125mph winds on Wednesday afternoon, but as always with the poorly understood intensification process, there remains some uncertainty.
The highest concern for damaging winds, of course, is near the center of the storm. But Michael will also have implications further away. According to the hurricane center, hurricane-force winds extend outward up to 45 miles from the center of Michael, and tropical-storm-force winds extend outward up to 175 miles. Michael’s Category 3-force winds are strong enough to damage the roofs of houses, uproot trees, and blow down electricity lines.
Already, by Tuesday afternoon, storm surge had begun to affect areas of Florida, coasts of the Florida Panhandle, Big Bend, and Nature Coast, where the National Hurricane Center has issued a storm-surge warning. The worst storm surge is expected between Mexico Beach and Keaton Beach, where nine to 13 feet of inundation is possible, forecasters warned.
Michael will likely be one of the strongest hurricanes to hit the Florida Panhandle on record. Since 1851, according to Colorado State University hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, nine major hurricanes have struck the Panhandle since semi-accurate record-keeping began in 1851.
If the National Hurricane Center wind forecast for Michael verifies, landfalling winds of 125mph would tie the hurricane with 1975’s Eloise and an 1882 Pensacola hurricane for the most intense storms to strike the Panhandle on record. Anything stronger, and Michael will set the record for the Panhandle’s strongest storm.