Maggie and Mike McKinney, their pets and a friend sought refuge in the bathroom of their home in the Florida Panhandle on October 10, 2018 with three shot glasses and a bottle of Jameson Irish whiskey.
They fled there when The fiercest winds of Hurricane Michael They arrived and Maggie could feel the house and the central brick chimney sway. The storm battered her century-old home in Econfina, north of Panama City, for about three hours, ripping off chunks of the roof and allowing rain to pour in.
When he finished, the house was still standing. The Jameson bottle was nearly empty.
They looked out the front door and Maggie uttered three words: “Oh my God.”
Every tree was twisted, mangled, or uprooted from the ground. “The smell of destruction,” a stench they will never forget, hit them from the shredded leaves and bark, tree sap, and overturned earth.
Lifelong Floridians, the McKinneys had weathered many hurricanes during 46 years of marriage, but this one was more intense than anything they had ever seen and far worse than they expected 30 miles inland.
Michael had slammed into the coast between Tyndall Air Force Base and Mexico Beach as a Category 5 hurricane with sustained winds of 160 mph. Just 24 hours earlier, the hurricane’s sustained winds had been 110 mph, but the intensity exploded as warm waters and conditions in the gulf of mexico he handed Michael the equivalent of a high-octane energy drink.
Such sudden spikes have been the hallmark of the most fearsome hurricanes in history, Ken Graham, director of the National Hurricane Center, told USA TODAY. Of the nine hurricanes with winds of 150 mph or more to hit the continental US over 103 years, all but one saw the burst of force and power known as rapid intensification.
With the days running to the start of this year Hurricane season in the Atlantic on June 1, it’s worth noting that nearly half of those most powerful storms — Charley, Laura, Ida and Michael — have made landfall in the US in the last 18 years alone. What Global temperatures continue to rise warming the Gulf and other tropical waters, it’s a phenomenon some experts hope to see more often.
Given the rapidly transforming storms and increased hurricane activity in recent years, Graham and others said it is clear that continued improvements are needed in forecasting, evacuation preparedness and ocean monitoring, and that residents in hurricane-prone areas remain vigilant.
Already this year, water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico are warmer than normal. And a rejuvenated La Niña current in the Pacific Ocean could mean more favorable conditions for hurricanes.
Last year’s season was the sixth consecutive season of above-normal hurricane activity, even after the 30-year normal was adjusted upward to 14 named storms instead of 12. Combined, the past two seasons produced 51 named storms and 21 hurricanes.
It is the increased intensity of the strongest storms that most worries meteorologists. They have seen busy seasons before. But more Category 4 and Category 5 hurricanes have hit the United States in the last five years than in the previous 54. “It’s crazy,” Graham said.
Five of last year’s storms experienced rapid intensification, including Grace and Ida, which strengthened until the last minute, said Phil Klotzbach, a research scientist and the study’s lead author. Atlantic Hurricane Seasonal Forecasts in the department of atmospheric sciences at Colorado State University. Laura and Zeta did the same in 2020, when 10 storms rapidly intensified.
Warming sea surface temperatures aren’t the only driver of rapid increases in intensity, but they do tend to load the dice toward extreme storms, Klotzbach said during a recent tropical climate conference. Other factors play a role, such as lack of wind shear, intense humidity, and storm organization.
In a study published five years ago, Kerry Emanuel, Meteorologist and climatologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, suggested that rapid intensification would occur more frequently in the warmer climate. That trend could be showing up already, Emanuel said, but it will take years of data to be sure.
Better Forecasts for Hurricane Intensity
Meteorologists have struggled for decades to improve intensity forecasts, in part because many factors can influence what happens in a storm. But thanks to significant advances in observations and modeling, they knew that Michael had the potential to rapidly intensify.
Five days before Michael made landfall, the McKinneys, both musicians, were out of town at a folk music festival when someone mentioned the storm in the Gulf of Mexico. For the 24 million people who live in the counties that border the Gulf Coast, that was cause for preparation, but not necessarily alarm.
When they returned home the next day, they began the family preparation, checking their rain barrels, strapping the above-ground pool and setting out supplies, including the Jameson.
By Tuesday, 24 hours before landfall, they were ready. They didn’t expect high winds to be a concern where they were. A friend’s children didn’t want him to be left alone near Panama City Beach, so he drove to stay with them.
But conditions in the Gulf were preparing a recipe for disaster. Sea surface temperatures were 85 degrees. Vertical wind shear was decreasing. Hurricane center forecasters continued to warn that strengthening could occur until landfall.
Among the conditions that influenced Michael’s rapid intensification was the Gulf of Mexico Circle Current, a thick layer of warmer water flowing into the Gulf from the Caribbean Sea. It also generates eddies of warm water, said Matthieu Le Henaff, a physical oceanographer and associate scientist at the University of Miami’s Cooperative Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Studies and the federal Atlantic Oceanographic Meteorological Laboratory.
The westward-moving current and eddies act as reservoirs for hurricane energy, Le Henaff said. Michael stepped over the circular current and one of its warm eddies. He also passed over the plume of warm, fresh water coming out of the Mississippi River, he said. “During all these stages the intensity of the hurricane was increasing.”
That makes observing and forecasting ocean conditions vitally important, he said, and the ongoing work of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration encourages him to do just that.
Last summer, an autonomous ocean drone, called the Saildrone, launched into the Atlantic Ocean, captured video footage inside Hurricane Sam. It was part of an effort by NOAA to better understand how the ocean’s interaction with storms affects intensification, by looking at conditions such as water and air temperature, salinity, waves and air pressure.
This summer, the agency plans to combine surface Saildrones and underwater gliders for the second consecutive hurricane season. By bringing the vehicles closer together, the agency can capture measurements at the same place and time, painting a more complete picture of the dynamics known to influence the strength of hurricanes, said Jennie Lyons, director of public affairs for the National Service. of the NOAA Ocean.
With so many storms experiencing rapid increases in intensity, Graham said it’s more important that people know their risks and prepare for evacuations sooner.
“The perception of these big storms is that you have a lot of time. Five days, seven days, 10 days observing it across the Atlantic. That’s not the case,” Graham said. People don’t always have time before they have to decide to do something, and that means you can’t wait until it’s too late.
Everyone in hurricane-prone areas should have a plan ready three days or less before a possible landfall, he said. That doesn’t mean they have to drive 100 miles. Sometimes people in storm surge and flood zones may need to drive only 5-10 miles to get away from the risk of flooding.
The McKinneys briefly considered leaving, but when they woke up Wednesday morning, she said the storm was too powerful to risk hitting the road. They knew they were unlikely to be flooded. They weren’t expecting such high winds and were more concerned about getting stuck in traffic if they tried to flee.
Maggie has no regrets about staying home and would do it again, even though the 20 minutes spent in the bathroom with her friend and their pets, Zulu, the black Labrador retriever, and cats Nosmo and Cosmo, were intense.
Her husband, on the other hand, would never do it again, she said. “He said we would leave a month early.”
Dinah Voyles Pulver covers climate change and environmental issues for USA TODAY. You can contact her at [email protected].
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Hurricane season 2022: watch out for the rise of rapidly intensifying storms