BY KEVIN SPEAR
ORLANDO – Florida will start the 2019 hurricane season powerfully informed by Matthew’s scary miss of the east coast in 2016, the statewide crushing from Irma in 2017 and Michael’s brutal assault on the Panhandle last year.
Each of those monster storms was different in nature but none devastated a metropolitan area, something forecasters say will happen sooner or later.
Michael was particularly chilling for experts. It gained far more intensity than expected and, making landfall on Oct. 10, came as the June 1 to Nov. 30 hurricane season was winding down.
“Michael was more than a month later than the previous, strongest mainland U.S. landfalling hurricane we’ve ever seen,” said meteorologist Jeff Masters, a founder of the internet-based weather service Weather Underground.
He said the storm would not have gotten so strong if Florida had not had its hottest September on record last year; the record warmth heated Gulf waters 2 to 3 degrees above average and that lingered into October.
“Hurricanes are heat engines,” Masters said. “You heat up the ocean, you provide them more energy. They take that heat energy and they convert it to the energy of their winds.”
Until Hermine hit in September 2016, Florida had not had experienced a hurricane strike for more than a decade.
But it was Matthew, topping out in the Caribbean as a Category 5 in October that year, that woke up the state’s east coast, with former Gov. Rick Scott warning residents “this storm will kill you.”
Matthew wound up skirting the coast, triggering costly flooding in St. Augustine and tearing up State Road A1A north of Daytona Beach.
A key and sobering eye-opener from Matthew was that for a storm traveling parallel with Florida’s coastline, even a tiny error in the forecast for where it will make landfall can mean the difference between clobbering several cities and remaining offshore just enough to avert disaster.
WRATH OF IRMA
Also maxing out as a Category 5 early in its journey, Hurricane Irma vexed residents and forecasters with frequent changes in its apparent route toward Florida.
It was the size of Texas as it finally churned north along a path just west of the center of the state’s peninsula spine, flooding and damaging cities on both coasts.
The storm was blamed for more than 80 deaths in Florida, epic episodes of evacuees stranded on roads and massive sewage spills caused by the worst outages on record for many utilities.
As its executives would later apologize for when speaking to state lawmakers, Duke Energy in particular was revealed to be poorly prepared for the storm; the utility’s response was hampered by equipment failures and poor coordination. Duke is Central Florida’s largest power provider.
Last year, Michael was one of the most powerful storms ever to strike the U.S. It hit near Mexico Beach, a seaside community east of Panama City, with a population of a little more than 1,100 residents.
Michael Brennan, branch chief of the National Hurricane Centers’ hurricane specialist unit, said the storm revealed the heightened risk of coastal living.
“Michael went from basically forming to making landfall as a Category 5 in three days,” Brennan said. “People think they are going to have a lot of time to watch a storm like an Irma come all the way across the Atlantic and have days and days to think about it and get ready. Michael was a pretty stark reminder that that is not always the case.”
HAVE A PLAN NOW
Michael was yet another reminder of what emergency managers routinely urge: Floridians need to have a plan at the start of the season.
“Know what you need to do, know what your risks are in a storm surge, know what your vulnerability is to wind and freshwater flooding,” Brennan said. “Know if you are asked to leave your home where you are going to go and how you are going to make that happen and do that quickly.”
Brennan said Mexico Beach was spared greater tragedy by its size.
“The challenge with a storm like Michael that hits a more populated area is you could have thousands of people left in an area that’s vulnerable to storm surge as opposed to less than a hundred left in Mexico beach,” Brennan said. “It’s a small enough area there that you were able to get people out on the last day.
“We have multiple major metropolitan areas that are very vulnerable to storm surge and have millions of people living in them and hundreds of thousands of people you will need to evacuate,” he said. “It’s a big challenge with a short-fuse storm like a Michael. People have to be ready to go very quickly.”
Michael formed as a tropical depression on Oct. 7 and made landfall three days later as a Category 5 with winds of 160 mph.
“We got away with one there because the storm intensified by 45 mph in the last 24 hours before landfall,” said Masters of Weather Underground.
“That’s a big increase and it makes it tough for warnings and evacuations in vulnerable areas,” Masters said.
Masters said the U.S. needs to invest far more heavily on research into the forecasting of hurricane intensity.
“We can’t have a situation where we blow the intensity forecast,” he said. “The hurricane center did have Michael intensifying but they missed it by 35 mph. When it was 24 hours before landfall, their forecast was for a storm that was 35 mph less than what actually occurred.”