Hurricane Michael didn’t give Floridians much time to brace for its devastating impact.
Just a few days before it made landfall Wednesday afternoon near the Florida Panhandle’s Mexico Beach, the storm was a loosely organized system just north of Honduras. On Saturday, forecasters said the system had a good chance of forming into a major storm, but few — if any — predicted its eventual speed and intensity.
What caused Michael’s lightning quick transformation from ominous system to Category 4 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 155 miles per hour? We asked weather expert Jeff Masters, a meteorologist with the IBM-owned Weather Underground. Here are four reasons Hurricane Michael was so devastating:
1. Unseasonably warm Gulf of Mexico waters fueled the monster storm.
Michael grew to be so fierce because it drew its strength from an unusually warm Gulf of Mexico, Masters said. Normally, the seasonal transition from summer to fall causes oceans in the northern hemisphere to cool by October. But because Florida just had its hottest September on record, Masters said, Michael was able to feed off of a Gulf of Mexico that was 2 to 4 degrees hotter than usual on average.
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As a rule, bodies of water are hurricane fuel. Oceans supply storms like Michael with water vapor that later becomes high-intensity rain. The hotter an ocean is — and the deeper its warm water goes — the more intense a hurricane can get, Masters explained. Warm water more easily turns into water vapor, and high temperatures add energy to a storm that keeps its winds raging at deadly speeds.
The western Caribbean sea, where Michael formed over the weekend, just happens to be one of the hottest areas of the Atlantic Ocean. As a result, some parts of the state could see as much as a foot of rain from the storm, the National Hurricane Center said Wednesday.
2. A cold front pushed Michael north at an unusually high speed.
Michael was moving north-northeast at a top speed of 16 miles per hour Wednesday — above average for a hurricane. The reason? Michael’s late formation exposed it to the kind of weather system we’d normally see later in the year.
Throughout the week, a cold front embedded in a low pressure "trough" moving west to east across the United States ran into Michael as it made its way north through the Gulf of Mexico. On the east side of the pressure trough, winds were moving south to north, blowing Michael north-northeast through the Panhandle and into Georgia and the Carolinas, Masters said.
The cold front that collided with Michael was far from unusual. Each fall, low pressure systems moving west to east bring cool air to much of the United States. What was abnormal was that system’s interaction with a major hurricane. Michael was the most intense storm to hit the United States this late in the year by over a month, Masters said.
3. Michael is going to stay a hurricane even as it leaves the Gulf of Mexico.
Normally, when hurricanes hit land masses, they weaken. Michael is no exception. But the storm is so strong and it’s moving so fast, it’s likely to remain a hurricane further into Georgia than any storm since 1985, Masters said.
The National Hurricane Center predicted that Michael would remain a hurricane until it hit central Georgia overnight. Michael was forecast to remain a tropical storm Thursday as it passes over Georgia, the Carolinas and even Virginia, bringing as much as a half a foot of rain to those states in a matter of days.
Michael was the third-strongest storm ever to hit the United States by minimum central pressure, and the fourth-strongest by wind speed. It won’t just be Florida’s coastal communities that are affected by towering storm surge — as high as 14 feet in some places — and outages from downed power lines.
4. There wasn’t much time to prepare for it.
In September 2017, Hurricane Irma set a record when it spent almost 12 days crawling through the Atlantic as a powerful hurricane. Michael coalesced in just half a week as it zoomed north through the Gulf of Mexico.
Michael’s speed made it a difficult storm to prepare for. Gov. Rick Scott, typically known as an aggressive communicator ahead of major storms, didn’t tweet about Michael until four days before it hit.
We are currently monitoring a weather system over the western Caribbean. As we continue to watch this storm, it’s important to take time to talk about your disaster plan with your family. Now is the time to get prepared. https://t.co/V2cN63fB5S— Rick Scott (@FLGovScott) October 6, 2018
When Irma bore down on the state, Scott was able to warn Floridians for over a week before it made its landfall just south of Naples. Even with all of those warnings, more than 15 million Floridians lost power during that hurricane.
We don’t yet know how deadly Michael will be, but we do know Florida had almost no time to prepare for it.
"The more lead time you have, the more prepared you are," Masters said. "And this one is going to end up potentially causing more loss of life and damage than a storm like Irma."