Hurricane Michael could be upgraded to a Cat. 5

The strongest hurricane on record in the Florida Panhandle offers lessons about wind strength

Hurricane Michael could be upgraded to a Cat. 5

NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Pastor John Ramsey rode out Hurricane Michael last October along with 20 other people who sought shelter at the Harvest Worship Center.

“We heard this huge boom, which we found out later was something striking the building,” Ramsey said.

At that point, Ramsey said the building began to be compromised, as two 35-foot-high walls started to lean and the roof shredded.

What surprised Ramsey was the fact that the building, which had been rated years ago for 130 mph winds, had on a number of occasions years earlier served as an official hurricane shelter in Bay County, Florida.

As the roof peeled away, Ramsey and the others hid under a crawl space for the remainder of the storm.

"We were just shocked, shocked at the fierceness and the strength of this storm," Ramsey said.

The church sits several miles from the nearest inlet of the Gulf of Mexico and 10 miles from the beach.

Michael’s winds clocked in at 155 mph, just shy of a Category 5 hurricane and the strongest storm on record to strike the Florida Panhandle at landfall.

“Very few people experience storms like this or winds like this,” FOX 8 Chief Meteorologist David Bernard said.

The strongest sustained winds, those lasting at least one minute, give a hurricane its name and category.

Often, those hurricane-force winds cover only a narrow band of a few miles.

People outside that band might see relatively little damage, but inside that swath of the highest winds, the damage increases exponentially as the winds grow in strength.

“An 80 miles per hour storm versus a 140 miles an hour, it’s not just that it’s almost double,” Bernard said. “The damage far exceeds that potential.”

In Lynn Haven, north of Panama City, Mayor Margo Anderson moved from one part of the police department building to another during the storm, as parts of the concrete block building collapsed around them.

“All of the sudden, it was very quickly that the windows began to tremble,” Anderson said. “We could see the walls swaying.”

They were down to one safe area of the building, Anderson said, when the winds finally subsided.

"Many people have asked how much water came through here, how much surge we had," Anderson said. "We actually had none."

Considering the extent of the wind damage, the mayor is pushing for the National Hurricane Center to officially designate Michael a Category 5.

"I'm not basing that on emotion," Anderson said. "I'm basing that on pure evidence that has come in."

In fact, scientists are conducting a routine review of the damage to confirm Michael’s status.

"One element they're going to be looking at very closely is the storm surge," Bernard said.

The surge that plowed into beach communities topped out at 15 feet, Bernard said, higher than forecasters projected for a storm on that path, with that size and strength.

However, he believes other factors also played a role in how Michael diced through coastal communities.

“They have a much weaker building codes on the panhandle [than Miami-Dade], and on top of that, a lot of the construction is quite old, and I would say flimsy and no match for the winds of Hurricane Michael,” Bernard said.

He points out the last time people in New Orleans experienced the winds of a major hurricane was 1947.

Hurricane Katrina's storm surge in 2005 produced catastrophic damage in the city, but forecasters said New Orleans did not experience major hurricane wind strengths.

Even in Hurricane Betsy in 1965, Bernard said the Category 3-force winds were outside the city limits.

While hurricane storm surges and inland flooding claim more lives during hurricanes, Bernard believes many people have underestimated the wind strength in a major storm.

“We’re gonna see incredible wind damage here like we have not seen in generations," Bernard said.

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