Hurricane Michael – considered the strongest storm to hit the Florida Panhandle since record-keeping began in 1851 -- roared ashore at midday Wednesday near Mexico Beach.
Michael made landfall with 155 mph sustained winds -- just one mile an hour shy of a Category-5 -- and reported gusts topping 175. It also brings in a life-threatening storm surge and heavy rainfall throughout the region.
Tropical storm force winds from the system are sweeping across the Pensacola area, churning up 15-foot waves in the Gulf.
“Locally here in Pensacola we should see maybe tropical storm force, maybe a bit gusty higher into the 45 [mph] range; but for the most part it should be tropical storm or less,” said John Dosh, Escambia County’s Emergency Director.
He adds the wind and rain hitting this area will be in the form of periodic squalls.
“Windy for a short period of time, then it will die down enough and then the rain will stop,” Dosh said. “And then another line of weather will come through – which is called a ‘squall line’ and it will start raining and will get windy again, and then it will die down. So it’s not going to be constant all day long; it will be on-again, off-again as we go through the afternoon.”
It’s a given that hurricanes spawn tornadoes, and Michael’s not expected to be the exception to the rule. But Dosh says the local area could catch a break as the storm moves inland.
“Typically, the majority of tornadoes that are developed out of hurricanes are on the northeastern quadrant; we’re on the western side,” Dosh said. “But there’s always that potential. When you have any type of tropical event like this or weather event like this tornadoes are always a possibility. But the chances are much less because we’re on this side of the eye.”
Governor Rick Scott said Wednesday morning that the time was past for those in coastal areas who debated whether or not to evacuate ahead of the storm.
“Now the storm is here; it’s not safe to travel across the Panhandle,” said the Governor. “If you are in a coastal area, do not leave your house. The time to evacuate in coastal areas has come and gone.”
Many people made the decision not to leave early, when the forecast had Michael’s winds reaching 100 miles per hour.
“I think what people didn’t realize is it could get worse; 145 mph winds, 12 inches of rain [and] flash flooding,” said Scott on “CBS This Morning.” “But the thing that I think is so different is the unbelievable storm surge. We’re having as much as 13-foot [sic] of storm surge. When that storm surge comes in, you have no control of it.”
Many Floridians have fled Michael’s path. State Emergency Management reports almost six thousand people housed at 54 shelters in the Panhandle and Big Bend.
Escambia County is lifting its evacuation order at four o’clock this afternoon, and will close two of its three shelters one hour later -- the exception being the Equestrian Center.
Travel through the Panhandle is, at best, dicey.
“There’s hardly any traffic out; that’s exactly what should be happening right now,” says Lt. Eddie Elmore with the Florida Highway Patrol. About 100 troopers from around the state have been brought in to help with Michael’s aftermath. Once sustained winds reach 50 miles an hour, troopers hunker down and screen calls for “critical incidents.”
“Gulf County, Calhoun County, Bay County, and Walton County, we’re in a shelter-in-place,” Elmore said. “Washington, Holmes and Jackson, we have just recently gone to a shelter-in-place as well. Okaloosa, Santa Rosa and Escambia Counties are not as affected.”
A number of bridges in the Panhandle have been closed, as sustained winds top the 40 mph level. Locally, no bridges are closed due to the storm and inspection crews are on standby. Elmore says the issue is vehicles in high winds.
“If you have a tractor-trailer that’s traveling in those conditions, those type of wind speeds, those gusts, can actually flip it over.”
Prior to Michael’s arrival, utility crews from Gulf Power, Duke Energy, Florida Power & Light and public utilities have lined up more than 19,000 workers to go in after the storm, and begin the massive process of power restoration.
“We haven’t had one like this in quite some time; and it’s going to cause widespread power outages,” said Jeff Rogers at Gulf Power. “The Panama City area will be hit the hardest now. They may see power outages that last up to a week or more with the strength of the storm that’s coming in.”
Rogers adds that while the biggest impact is to the east, Michael will also be felt in the Pensacola and Fort Walton Beach areas.
“We can expect tropical storm-force winds as well and for seven hours straight in the Pensacola area,” Rogers says. “Winds in excess of 30 mph, which can cause significant damage. The good news is that we’ve been preparing, staging resources and materials and crews to get ready for this.”
Also ready if needed, are about 2,000 additional crew members – from as far away as Texas, Nebraska and Indiana – are ready it needed through mutual-aid agreements with utilities across the South and Midwest.
“They are coming from all over the U.S. to come and help; not just us, but other energy providers that may be impacted as well,” says Rogers. “This is a significant storm; it’s going to wreak havoc along its path as it travels upward into land through Georgia and so on. Something to definitely be ready for.”
After making landfall in the Panhandle, Michael is forecast to move northeast across the southeastern U.S. tonight and Thursday, and then move off the Mid-Atlantic coast and away from land on Friday.