Florida knew Hurricane Michael was bad. Now, scientists reveal just how strong it was.

With just a little over a month to the start of hurricane season, scientists have upgraded last year’s beast — Hurricane Michael — from a Category 4 to a rare Category 5.

Michael, which devastated Florida’s Mexico Beach when it made landfall on Oct. 10, becomes the first hurricane to make landfall in the United States as a Cat 5 since Hurricane Andrew brought “destruction at dawn” to South Miami-Dade in August 1992.

Post-storm analysis

Scientists at NOAA’s National Hurricane Center performed a detailed post-storm analysis on Hurricane Michael’s data and determined that the storm’s estimated intensity at landfall near Mexico Beach and the Tyndall Air Force Base was 160 mph, which puts its winds in the top category over a small number of storms at and near the Florida coast.

This figure, released Friday, represents a 5 mph increase over the operational estimate and nudges Michael into the Category 5 platform on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale at the time of its landfall.

Michael was responsible for 16 deaths and caused about $25 billion in damage to the U.S. Cuba also was hit by Category 2 winds from Michael.

Other Category 5 storms

Michael is only the fourth hurricane to hit the U.S. as a Category 5, according to the hurricane center.

Before Andrew there was Hurricane Camille in 1969, which made landfall at Pass Christian, Mississippi, on Aug. 18, 1969, three days after hitting Cuba as a Category 2.

The Labor Day Hurricane in September 1935, which hit the Florida Keys and particularly wreaked havoc on Islamorada, was the first since records were kept to land in the U.S. as a Cat 5.

Michael is also the strongest hurricane landfall on record in the Florida Panhandle, the hurricane center reported.

Atmospheric pressure

The hurricane center’s new analysis also revealed that Michael’s atmospheric pressure, a reliable measure of a storm’s intensity, was at 919 millibars at landfall in Mexico Beach. Meteorologists note that the lower a storm’s central pressure, the higher its winds. Michael’s central pressure at landfall is the third lowest on record for a U.S. hurricane since records began in 1900 — trailing only Camille, which went as low as 900 millibars, and the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 at 892 millibars.

Andrew in 1992, by comparison, recorded 922 millibars at its lowest reading.

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Miami Herald Real Time/Breaking News reporter Howard Cohen, a 2017 Media Excellence Awards winner, has covered pop music, theater, health and fitness, obituaries, municipal government and general assignment. He started his career in the Features department at the Miami Herald in 1991.
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