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Warning : Hurricane Michael reached wind speeds of 125 mph increasing fear of greater devastation in Florida !

Hurricane Michael reached wind speeds of 125 mph on Tuesday night, coming within 5 mph of Category 4 status and increasing fear of greater devastation.

Could it make landfall as a Category 4?

Yes, the National Hurricane Center predicted Tuesday night ahead of the storm's projected landfall Wednesday in the Florida Panhandle. Only six storms in the new century hit landfall on the Florida coasts as Category 3 or better, and only one, Charley, had winds above 120 mph. The most recent Category 3 hurricane or stronger to hit the state was Hurricane Irma (115 mph) in September 2017.

While Michael's wind speeds continued to intensify and flirt with Category 4 status, Colorado State University meteorologist Phil Klotzbach told USA TODAY that the hurricane will be a significant threat — regardless of its category ranking.


That, he said, "doesn't matter a ton."

Michael's intensification won't slow down until it hits land, or just before in shallow waters near the coast, Klotzbach said. 

Michael has grown quickly, only matching the attributes of a tropical depression on Sunday morning. Then the wind shear disrupting the hurricane's circulation weakened, allowing wind speeds to intensify.

Even with aircraft, Klotzbach said a bit of uncertainty remains in wind speed projections, compared to central pressure which can be accurately measured in the eye of a hurricane. That is why the center describes wind speed in increments of 5 mph. 

"Wind is harder to measure because you're searching for an elusive point somewhere in the hurricane," Klotzbach said.

As a hurricane's wind speed increases, the wind’s force and risk for damage increases exponentially, Dennis Feltgen of the National Hurricane Center told USA TODAY. Flying debris, downed power lines and fallen trees could result. 

However, wind accounts for just one of the three primary dangers of a hurricane, Klotzbach said. Storm surge and rain are the others.

In fact, Feltgen said, Michael's storm surge and inland flooding pose deadlier risks than its wind speed. Ninety percent of hurricane deaths are caused by water. Storm surge causes 49 percent and inland flooding results in another 25 percent. 

“You can survive the wind, but the water will kill you," Feltgen said.

For Michael, the hurricane center predicts storm surges up to 13 feet from Mexico Beach to Keaton Beach in Florida. Combined with the tide, rising waters moving inland will flood normally dry areas near the coast, typically high-value tourist destinations. The Florida Panhandle, particularly the Big Bend area and Apalachee Bay, is especially susceptible to storm surge. 

The danger won't be limited the coast, Feltgen said, adding that water could be pushed up into Florida Panhandle's many rivers and result in flooding 10 to 15 miles inland. 

No direct correlation exists between wind speed and storm surge. More variables are at play, Feltgen said. Storm surge depends on the storm’s size, strength, forward motion, angle of approach, as well as the symmetry of water and slope of the shelf off the coast. 

Michael may also spin off tornadoes in the Florida Panhandle, the northern Florida peninsula and southern Georgia.

Michael officially reached Category 3 status on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale early Tuesday night. With the eye clearing out and recon and satellite observations of a nearly closed eyewall, Michael may not be done strengthening and is as likely as not to reach Category 4 intensity in the next 12 hours, reported WeatherTiger’s Ryan Truchelut.

While most hurricanes approaching the northern Gulf in Florida weaken on approach, Michael appears poised to defy that precedent, Truchelut said.

There remains more warm water with depth that is typical in the northeastern Gulf, and the dry continental airmass that often wraps into eastern Gulf storms is unlikely to significantly disrupt the core prior to landfall, Truchelut said.

On Tuesday the estimated reconstruction cost value of the homes in Hurricane Michael's path was $13.4 billion, according to CoreLogic, a property analytics company. It predicted the projected storm surge will endanger 57,000 homes in the Florida Gulf Coast. 

A Category 5 storm in 1992, Hurricane Andrew, cost the U.S. $25 billion in damages and was directly responsible for 26 deaths, 15 in Florida. In 2004, Hurricane Charley cost the country $15.4 billion in damages, mostly in Florida, as a Category 4 storm, directly killing 15.

Last year, Hurricane Irma caused 47 deaths in total and was estimated to the nation $50 billion. It struck as a Category 4 hurricane in the Florida Keys as a Category 3 in southwestern Florida.
Published 1:25 AM EDT Oct 10, 2018
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