5.2 What If Hurricane Michael Struck Houston? An Examination of Inland Wind Damage

Wednesday, 15 January 2020: 9:45 AM
153C (Boston Convention and Exhibition Center)
Jeffry S. Evans, National Weather Service Houston/Galveston, Dickinson, TX

A rapidly intensifying hurricane quickly approaching the U.S. coast is a ‘worst-case’ scenario for the weather enterprise. Storms that undergo rapid intensification are more dangerous than other storms because they frequently end up as major hurricanes, and the speed at which they strengthen allows for less warning time. When you add a major population center to the scenario, the risks to life and property amplify exponentially. Hurricane Michael in 2019 was just such a storm, strengthening rapidly on three different occasions as it traversed the Gulf of Mexico and took aim at the Florida Panhandle. Michael finally made landfall between Panama City and Mexico Beach, FL as a category 5 hurricane. Not only did Michael intensify as it approached the coast, the storm was accelerating at landfall and maintained a relatively fast forward motion - making it across the Florida Panhandle and into central GA in just 12 hours. The combination of such intensification and forward motion allowed the storm to produce catastrophic wind damage for over 100 miles inland. Although the wind speeds and extent of damage steadily diminished beyond FL, the damage remained quite extensive across most of southwest and central GA. A gust of 115 mph was measured at Donalsville, GA (approximately 90 miles inland) as the remnants of Michael passed over and just east of that location.

This presentation will examine the inland wind damage the author observed as part of a post-storm survey team a week after Michael, with a focus is on how a comparable storm would impact the densely populated Houston metropolitan area. Houston has not experienced a storm of this size or strength since the early 20th century. A 2015 American Community Survey included more than 130,000 people in just Harris county who live in mobile homes, with thousands more in the surrounding counties. This provides unique challenges to the region as rapid intensification would limit timelines and push resources to simply evacuate people near the coast from the storm surge. While the current mantra for hurricane messaging is to ‘hide from the wind, and run from the surge’, a Michael-like storm would provide challenges in recommending the inland populace stay in place. We will also discuss some of the plans being discussed with the city of Houston and Harris county for a ‘Michael-like’ storm, which could also be applicable to other large coastal cities susceptible to hurricanes.

- Indicates paper has been withdrawn from meeting
- Indicates an Award Winner