Hurricane Michael is seen over the Florida Panhandle
© NOAA
Hurricane Michael is seen over the Florida Panhandle in mid-October 2018.
Hurricane Michael, which devastated a swath of the Florida Panhandle last fall, was actually stronger than initially measured, prompting forecasters to upgrade it from a Category 4 storm to a Category 5 storm, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced Friday. Michael was the first hurricane to make landfall in the U.S. as a Category 5 since Hurricane Andrew in 1992, and only the fourth on record.

"My thought is simply that most of us thought we were dealing with a (Category) 5 anyway," said Al Cathey, mayor of Mexico Beach, which bore the brunt of the storm when it hit.

National Hurricane Center scientists conducted a detailed post-storm analysis for Hurricane Michael, which made landfall near Mexico Beach, Florida, and Tyndall Air Force Base on October 10, 2018. They've determined that its estimated intensity at landfall was 160 mph, a 5 mph increase over the operational estimate used last fall, NOAA said in a news release. That puts Michael just barely over the 157 mph threshold for a category 5 hurricane.

"Michael is also the strongest hurricane landfall on record in the Florida Panhandle and only the second known Category 5 landfall on the northern Gulf coast," the hurricane center said in a statement.


Just 36 hours before hitting Florida's coast, Michael was making its way through the Gulf of Mexico as a 90 mph Category 1 storm. But the reclassification doesn't come with the much-needed state and federal funding Cathey said is necessary to rebuild. "Whether it was a 5 or a 4, it really isn't relative to anything for most of us who are here. It's just another number," Cathey said Friday.

And the numbers tell the story in Mexico Beach, where Cathey said there were about 1,200 residents and 2,700 housing units before Hurricane Michael hit. Today, the population has dipped to about 400 people and there are less than 500 structures standing. And many of those suffered catastrophic damage.

According to NOAA, Category 5 winds were likely experienced over a small area, and the change is of little practical significance. Both categories signify the potential for catastrophic damage. Michael was directly responsible for 16 deaths and about $25 billion in damage in the U.S., and parts of the Florida Panhandle, including Mexico Beach and nearby Panama City, are still recovering from the destruction more than six months later.

The new landfall speed was determined by a review of the available aircraft winds, surface winds, surface pressures, satellite intensity estimates and Doppler radar velocities, NOAA said. That includes data and analyses that weren't available during the storm. The increase in the estimated maximum sustained wind speed from the operational estimate is small and well within the normal range of uncertainty, NOAA said.

CBS/AP