A Category 4 in the making?


Published 9:49 PM EDT Oct 9, 2018

Hurricane Michael reached wind speeds up to 120 mph on Tuesday afternoon, coming within 10 mph of Category 4 status and increasing fear of greater devastation.

Could it make landfall as a Category 4?

If the storm's strength does not dissipate as the hurricane center predicts, Michael will be one of the strongest storms to make landfall in Florida. 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 wind speeds are expected to continue to intensify and could flirt with Category 4 status, Colorado State University meteorologist Phil Klotzbach told USA TODAY that Michael will be a significant threat, regardless. 

More: Hurricane Michael could rival worst storms on record to hit Florida Panhandle

Related: Did 'downgraded' Florence contribute to a false sense of security?

Whether Hurricane Michael makes landfall as a high Category 3 or a low Category 4 storm "doesn't matter a ton," he said. 

The hurricane won't slow it down until it hits the coast, Klotzbach said. The wind shear has weakened, allowing wind speeds to intensify.

However, wind accounts for one of the three primary factors that determine a hurricane's impact, Klotzbach said. Storm surge and rain are the the others. 

The potential for storm surge and inland flooding pose deadlier risks than Hurricane Michael's wind speed, Dennis Feltgen of the National Hurricane Center told USA TODAY. 

No correlation exists between wind speed and storm surge, Feltgen said. Ninety percent of people who die in hurricanes are because of the water. 49 percent are due to the storm surge, with 25 percent due to inland flooding. The danger isn't limited the coast, as inland flooding is expected. 

A Category 4 in the making?

As of the 5 p.m. Tuesday, Michael officially reached Category 3 intensity on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, with maximum sustained winds of 120 mph. 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.

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