Supercharged overnight, Hurricane Michael menaces Florida
By JAY REEVES
Wednesday, October 10
PANAMA CITY, Fla. (AP) — Gaining frightening fury overnight, Hurricane Michael closed in Wednesday on the Florida Panhandle with potentially catastrophic winds of 145 mph, the most powerful storm on record ever to menace the stretch of fishing towns, military bases and spring-break beaches.
With more than 375,000 people up and down the Gulf Coast warned to clear out, the hurricane’s leading edge began lashing the white-sand shoreline with tropical storm-force winds, rain and rising seas before daybreak, hours before Michael’s center was expected to blow ashore.
“I really fear for what things are going to look like there tomorrow at this time,” Colorado State University hurricane expert Phil Klotzbach said in an email.
The unexpected brute quickly sprang from a weekend tropical depression, reaching Category 4 early Wednesday as it drew energy from the Gulf of Mexico’s 84-degree waters. That was up from a Category 2 on Tuesday afternoon.
“The time to evacuate has come and gone … SEEK REFUGE IMMEDIATELY,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott tweeted, while the sheriff in Panama City’s Bay County issued a shelter-in-place order before dawn.
At 8 a.m ., Michael was centered was about 90 miles (145 kilometers) from Panama City and Apalachicola, moving fast at 13 mph (21 kph). Tropical storm winds extended 185 miles (295 kilometers) from the center, and hurricane-force winds reached out 45 miles (75 kilometers).
Rainfall could reach up to a foot (30 centimeters), and the life-threatening storm surge could swell to 14 feet (4 meters).
The storm appeared to be so powerful — with a central pressure dropping to 933 millibars — that it is expected to remain a hurricane as it moves over Georgia early Thursday. Forecasters said it will unleash damaging winds and rain all the way into the Carolinas, which are still recovering from Hurricane Florence’s epic flooding.
“We are in new territory,” National Hurricane Center Meteorologist Dennis Feltgen wrote on Facebook. “The historical record, going back to 1851, finds no Category 4 hurricane ever hitting the Florida panhandle.”
With Election Day less than a month away, the crisis was seen as a test of leadership for Scott, a Republican running for the Senate, and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, the Democratic nominee for governor. Just as Northern politicians are judged on how they handle snowstorms, their Southern counterparts are watched closely for how they deal with hurricanes.
Several hours ahead of landfall, seawater was already lapping over the docks at Massalina Bayou near downtown Panama City, and knee-deep water was rising against buildings in St. Marks, which sits on an inlet south of Tallahassee.
Huge waves pounded the white sands of Panama City Beach, shooting frothy water all the way to the base of wooden stairs that lead to the beach.
More than 5,000 evacuees sought shelter in the capital city, which is about 25 miles from the coast but is covered by live oak and pine trees that can fall and cause power outages even in smaller storms.
Only a skeleton staff remained at Tyndall Air Force Base, situated on a peninsula just south of Panama City. The home of the 325th Fighter Wing and some 600 military families appeared squarely targeted for the worst of the storm’s fury, and leaders declared HURCON 1 status, ordering out all but essential personnel.
The base’s aircraft, which include F-22 Raptors, were flown hundreds of miles away as a precaution.
Evacuations spanned 22 counties from the Florida Panhandle into north-central Florida. But civilians don’t have to follow orders, and authorities feared many failed to heed their warnings to get out.
“We’ve told those who stayed to have their life jackets on when the storm comes,” Tress Dameron, Franklin County emergency management coordinator, told The News Herald in Panama City.
Sally Crown planned to hunker down with her two dogs in the dangerously exposed coastal town of Apalachicola, population 2,500.
“We’ve been through this before,” she said. “This might be really bad and serious. But in my experience, it’s always blown way out of proportion.”
Meteorologists watched in real time as a new government satellite showed the hurricane’s eye tightening, surrounded by lightning that lit it up “like a Christmas tree.”
“I guess it’s the worst-case scenario. I don’t think anyone would have experienced this in the Panhandle,” meteorologist Ryan Maue of weathermodels.com said. “This is going to have structure-damaging winds along the coast and hurricane-force winds inland.”
The University of Georgia’s Marshall Shepherd, a former president of the American Meteorological Society, called it a “life-altering event,” writing on Facebook that he watched the storm’s growth on satellite images with a pit in his stomach.
Most waterfront homes stood vacant in Keaton Beach, which forecasters said could get some of the highest water — seas up 9 feet (2.75 meters) above ground level.
“I know it’s going to cover everything around here,” said Robert Sadousky, a 77-year-old retired millworker.
He took a last look at the canal behind his home, built on stilts overlooking the Gulf. He pulled two docks from the water, packed his truck and picked some beans from his garden before getting out.
Because of the low-lying land, many people living inland could see their homes flooded, too.
Associated Press contributors include Tamara Lush in St. Petersburg; Brendan Farrington in St. Mark’s, Russ Bynum in Keaton Beach; Jonathan Drew in Raleigh, North Carolina; and Science Writer Seth Borenstein in Kensington, Maryland.
For the latest on Hurricane Michael, visit https://www.apnews.com/tag/Hurricanes .
Hurricane Michael could bring more inland flooding to southeast states
October 10, 2018
Craig E. Colten
Carl O. Sauer Professor of Geography, Louisiana State University
Craig E. Colten has received funding from the National Academy of Sciences, Louisiana Sea Grant, Minerals Management Service (currently Bureau of Energy Management), and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Coastal counties in North and South Carolina are still assessing damage from Hurricane Florence, which dropped up to three feet of rain in some areas in September. Now, along with southern Georgia, they face new forecasts of dangerous flooding from Hurricane Michael.
Since the 1950s, coastal communities have ordered evacuations to move people out of the paths of dangerous storms. Coastal residents also prepare by building homes elevated above anticipated high water levels, and building codes commonly call for reinforced construction to endure high wind speeds.
Today, however, risk from hurricanes is extending inland. Some of the worst damage from Eastern Seaboard hurricanes in the past several decades has come from inland flooding along rivers after storms move ashore. Hurricane evacuations typically direct coastal residents to retreat inland, but river flooding can put them at risk if there are not enough shelters and accommodations in safe locations. And inland communities may not take adequate measures to ensure the safety of their residents.
Much of my research, including my book, “Southern Waters: The Limits to Abundance,” has focused on the complex historical geography of water in the American South. What I have seen is that inland river flooding linked to hurricanes and heavy storms is a huge risk in the Southeast, but receives far less attention in emergency plans than coastal areas.
Hurricane Florence cut off entire towns and swamped roads and highways in North Carolina, forcing thousands of people from their homes.
Warm, rainy watersheds
The U.S. Gulf coast and eastern seaboard are particularly susceptible to river flooding due to tropical weather that moves onshore. From New England to Georgia, a dense network of rivers flows down from the eastern Appalachians across the Piedmont – a broad, rolling plateau extending from the mountains to the coastal plain – and drains into the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. Steep gradients move water quickly down the mountain slopes.
On the Piedmont, many small streams merge and then become meandering rivers on the low-lying coastal plain. When tropical weather systems lumber onshore and move inland, they rise up the steep face of the Blue Ridge Mountains. As the saturated air moves upward, it cools and releases huge quantities of rain – a process known as orographic precipitation.
This phenomenon, coupled with heavy rainfall dumped on lower elevations by these tropical systems, unleashes dramatic downpours that funnel into river networks and rush toward the sea, often spilling over the banks of overwhelmed channels.
Planning centers on coastal communities
A series of storms in the 1950s prompted federal agencies to start planning for extreme tropical weather events. In August 1954, Hurricane Carol grazed the Outer Banks of North Carolina before battering Long Island and Rhode Island and causing extensive flood damage in New England. Hurricane Edna followed a similar path two weeks later, but remained offshore. And an October storm dumped up to 10 inches of rain across the Appalachians as it moved inland, causing serious flooding, damage and fatalities in Maryland and Pennsylvania.
In 1955 Hurricane Connie unleashed huge amounts of rain over upstate New York. Days later, Hurricane Diane produced modest damage along the coast, but caused extensive river flooding as it continued across New England. Although both of these storms made landfall in North Carolina, their impacts in the more heavily populated northeast spurred federal action.
The southern United States is regularly affected by hurricanes.
Following these tragic back-to-back seasons, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers launched a series of hurricane risk assessments for communities along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, and the Weather Bureau – the forerunner of the National Weather Service – commenced studying tropical weather systems. The Corps considered building structural protection for most cities, but found that flood walls were too expensive in most locations. Instead, it recommended evacuations, building codes and zoning to limit exposure in areas subject to storm surge – that is, in the immediate coastal zone.
The Weather Bureau issued a model for hurricane planning in 1959 that used a hypothetical community situated directly on the coast. It emphasized effective emergency communication, public education, preparation, and most importantly, evacuation. Neither agency paid any significant attention to inland flooding.
The growing inland threat
Hurricane Floyd in 1999 showed that tropical weather events could wreak havoc inland, mainly through river flooding. Floyd moved onshore near Cape Fear, North Carolina, in mid-September with wind speeds of about 105 miles per hour and traveled northward, dumping up to 20 inches of rain along a path stretching into New England and Canada.
Copious rainfall pushed inland ahead of the storm’s eye overwhelmed most of the rivers in eastern North Carolina. Emergency responders conducted hundreds of inland freshwater rescues. Some river flood crests did not occur until over a week after the storm had passed. Millions of hogs, chickens and other farm animals drowned, and dozens of animal waste lagoons overflowed, contaminating water supplies.
Floyd’s impact was compounded by the fact that it followed Hurricane Dennis by about 10 days, so soils were already saturated. And rivers were still at higher-than-normal stages when Hurricane Irene arrived a month later. Total damage from Floyd alone was estimated at US$6.5 billion, much of it from inland flooding.
Massive floods in Columbia, South Carolina, in 2015 and southeast Louisiana in 2016, caused by rare heavy rainfall events, soaked major urban areas and triggered evacuations – again, mainly through river flooding. And in 2017, Hurricane Harvey dropped at least 52 inches of rain on Houston in six days, an amount NASA described as “unfathomable.”
As the record shows, places adjacent to the sea are not the only danger zones during hurricanes. Inland river flooding from hurricanes is a major risk, particularly in areas with dense populations. Urban expansion and suburban sprawl have placed more people in areas where no one lived in 1955. The Florida panhandle and Georgia Piedmont have seen extensive development.
As warmer ocean temperatures contribute to heavier rainfalls and slower moving hurricanes, inland flooding is likely to increase. Until hurricane planning fully incorporates this threat, coastal communities will risk evacuating people straight into harm’s way and inland residents will share a false sense of security.
Barrier islands are natural coast guards that absorb impacts from hurricanes and storms
Updated October 9, 2018
Assistant Professor of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, Mississippi State University
Anna Linhoss receives funding from NOAA and the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources.
Mississippi State University provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.
When storms like Hurricane Michael make landfall, the first things they hit often are barrier islands – thin ribbons of sand that line the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf coasts. It’s hard to imagine how these narrow strips can withstand such forces, but in fact, many of them have buffered our shores for centuries.
Barrier islands protect about 10 percent of coastlines worldwide. When hurricanes and storms make landfall, these strands absorb much of their force, reducing wave energy and protecting inland areas.
They also provide a sheltered environment that enables estuaries and marshes to form behind them. These zones serve many valuable ecological functions, such as reducing coastal erosion, purifying water and providing habitat for fish and birds.
Many barrier islands have been developed into popular tourist destinations, including North Carolina’s Outer Banks and South Carolina’s Hilton Head and Kiawah. Islands that have been preserved in their natural state can move with storms, shifting their shapes over time. But many human activities interfere with these natural movements, making the islands more vulnerable.
Islands on the move
Barrier islands are made of sandy, erodible soil and subject to high-energy wave action. They are dynamic systems that constantly form and reform. But this doesn’t necessarily mean the islands are disappearing. Rather, they migrate naturally, building up sand in some areas and eroding in other areas.
New islands can form out in the ocean, either because local sea level drops or tectonics or sediment deposition raises the ocean floor. Or they may shift laterally along the shore as currents carry sediments from one end of the island toward the other. On the East Coast, barrier islands usually move from north to south because longshore currents transport sand in the same direction.
And over time many barrier islands move landward, toward the shore. This typically happens because local sea levels rise, so waves wash over the islands during storms, moving sand from the ocean side to the inland side.
Building on shifting sands
Building hard infrastructure such as homes, roads and hotels on barrier islands interrupts their lateral migration. Needless to say, beach communities want their dunes to stay in place, so the response often is to build control structures, such as seawalls and jetties.
This protects buildings and roads, but it also disrupts natural sand transportation. Blocking erosion up-current means that no sediments are transported down-current, leaving those areas starved of sediment and vulnerable to erosion.
Many sandy tourist beach towns along the East Coast also turn to beach nourishment – pumping tons of sand from offshore – to replace sand lost through erosion. This does not interrupt natural sand transportation, but it is a very expensive and temporary fix.
For example, since the 1940s Florida has spent over US$1.3 billion on beach nourishment projects, and North Carolina has spent more than $700 million. This added sand will eventually wash away, quite possibly during Hurricane Florence or the next hurricane to hit the coast, and have to be replaced.
What kind of protection?
In some cases, however, leaving barrier islands to do their own natural thing can cause problems for people. Some cities and towns, such as Miami and Biloxi, are located behind barrier islands and rely on them as a first line of defense against storms.
And many communities depend on natural resources provided by the estuaries and wetlands behind barrier islands. For example, Pamlico Sound – the protected waters behind North Carolina’s Outer Banks – is a rich habitat for blue crabs and popular sport fish such as red drum.
Unmanaged, some of these islands may not move the way we want them to. For example, a storm breach on a barrier island that protects a city would make that city more vulnerable.
Here in Mississippi, a string of uninhabited barrier islands off our coast separates Mississippi Sound from the Gulf of Mexico. Behind the islands is a productive estuary, important wetlands and cities such as Biloxi and Gulfport. Because the Mississippi River has been dredged and enclosed between levees to keep it from spilling over its banks, this area does not receive the sediment loads that the river once deposited in this part of the Gulf. As a result, the islands are eroding and disappearing.
To slow this process, state and federal agencies are artificially nourishing the islands to keep them in place and preserve the cities, livelihoods and ecological habitats behind them. This project will fill a major breach cut in one island by Hurricane Camille in 1969, making the island a more effective storm buffer for the state’s coast.
When to retreat?
Geologically, barrier islands are not designed to stay in one place. But development on them is intended to last, although critics argue that climate change and sea level rise will inevitably force a retreat from the shore.
Reconciling humans’ love of the ocean with the hard realities of earth science is not easy. People will always be drawn to the coast, and prohibiting development is politically impractical. However, there are some ways to help conserve barrier islands while maintaining areas for tourism activities.
First, federal, state and local laws can reduce incentives to build on barrier islands by putting the burden of rebuilding after storms on owners, not on the government. Many critics argue that the National Flood Insurance Program has encouraged homeowners to rebuild on barrier islands and other coastal locations, even after suffering repeated losses in many storms.
Second, construction on barrier islands should leave dunes and vegetation undisturbed. This helps to keep their sand transportation systems intact. When roads and homes directly adjacent to beaches are damaged by storms, owners should be required to move back from the shoreline in order to provide a natural buffer between any new construction and the coastline.
Third, designating more conservation areas on barrier islands will maintain some of the natural sediment transportation and barrier island migration processes. And these conservation areas are popular nature-based tourism attractions. Protected barrier islands such as Assateague, Padre and the Cape Cod National Seashore are popular destinations in the U.S. national park system.
Finally, development on barrier islands should be done with change in mind and a preference for temporary or movable infrastructure. The islands themselves are surprisingly adaptable, but whatever is built in these dynamic settings is likely sooner or later to be washed away.