Hurricane Michael retroactively upgraded to a Category 5 storm at landfall

The storm, which tore through the Panhandle in October, is the first hurricane to make landfall as a Category 5 since Andrew in 1992
A growing percentage of people in Mexico Beach and Panana City whose homes were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Michael are now seriously delinquency on their mortgages. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD   |   Times]
A growing percentage of people in Mexico Beach and Panana City whose homes were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Michael are now seriously delinquency on their mortgages. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]
Published April 19
Updated April 19

More than six months since Hurricane Michael ripped through the Florida Panhandle, the National Hurricane Center has upgraded it to a Category 5 storm.

Forecasters now say, based on a post-storm analysis, that the hurricane packed 160 mph winds when it hit Oct. 10 around Tyndall Air Force Base near Mexico Beach.

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It's the first hurricane to make landfall in the United States as a Category 5 since Hurricane Andrew came ashore near Miami in 1992, according to the Hurricane Center.

Only two other storms in recorded history have struck the nation as Category 5s, forecasters said — the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 and Hurricane Camille in 1969.

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“This confirms what we already knew,” Gov. Ron DeSantis wrote in a tweet Friday. “Hurricane Michael was one of the most devastating storms in Florida and U.S. history.”

The update is likely to mean little on the ground beyond confirming what residents had already accepted as fact — that the wind speeds were greater than recorded despite initial Hurricane Center estimates listing the hurricane as a peak Category 4 storm. Forecasters had said previously that Michael's winds reached about 155 mph at landfall; Category 5 on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale begins at 157 mph.

“They could have called us months ago,” said Mexico Beach Mayor Al Cathey. “We could have saved them some time.”

Workers in his small city are still trying to clear out debris, especially from the canal they hope to have ready for the upcoming snapper season.

The Hurricane Center report explained that the Category 5 winds probably only touched a small section of the coast. The storm killed 16 people in the United States and caused $25 billion in damage.

However, Category 5 status does not automatically trigger more relief funds for devastated communities, said Federal Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman Cheria Brown.

“The category of the storm doesn’t change the assistance that the Panhandle is going to get going forward from FEMA," she said.

Bay County officials used the Hurricane Center findings Friday to call on Congress to fund a disaster aid package post-Michael — a proposal that has been held up over relief for Puerto Rico, which was decimated two years ago by Hurricane Maria.

“The federal government has historically provided major disaster funding,” said Bay County Commissioner Robert Carroll in a statement. “We anticipate and expect the same treatment, and we need them to step up and provide some funding and some relief.”

Leaders in Bay County estimate they sustained hundreds of millions of dollars in damage from the storm.

“There are abandoned houses everywhere,” Carroll said, and families are sharing space with friends or relatives wherever homes are still livable. “There isn’t a week that goes by I don’t have at least one of my daughters’ friends staying at our house.”

The full Hurricane Center report includes other details, pulled from multiple sources, which offer insight into the havoc surrounding the storm:

  • The worst damage happened in Bay County, specifically Tyndall Air Force Base and Mexico Beach, where 1,584 of the town’s 1,692 buildings were damaged. The report shows that 809 buildings there were totally destroyed. Countywide, the Hurricane Center said, 45,000 structures were damaged in Bay and 4,185 in neighboring Gulf. Even areas further inland sustained major losses, including 400 destroyed buildings in Jackson County.

  • Seven people died in Florida, directly because of the hurricane, according to the Hurricane Center. Five drowned — three in Mexico Beach, one near Port St. Joe, and one closer to Panama City. Two others died under fallen trees in Quincy and Alford. At least another 43 people died with some connection to the storm — during clean-up, in car crashes or from medical problems worsened by the disaster.

  • Storm surge inundation peaked in Mexico Beach, between 9 and 14 feet. Waves worsened the destruction.

  • Florida sustained $18.4 billion in damage.

  • Forecast tracks were accurate, but the storm’s intensity defied expectations that wind shear would prevent the hurricane from becoming so strong. Over seven days, the Hurricane Center’s website received 85 million page views.

Contact Zachary T. Sampson at [email protected] or (727) 893-8804. Follow @ZackSampson.

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