Remembering Hurricane Opal

| October 3, 2009 @ 8:52 pm | 15 Replies

Media coverage at the National Hurricane Center in Miami is usually intense during any landfalling United States hurricane. But on the night of October 3, 1995, the verdict in the O.J. Simpson trial was grabbing the headlines and there were no representatives of the media at the Center in Coral Gables.

Meanwhile, Hurricane Opal was gathering strength in the Gulf of Mexico and making her final move to the coast. Evacuations were ordered during the evening in the Florida Panhandle, but some of the evacuation notices came after people had already retired for the evening.

Then the situation got even worse. In the eighteen hours before its landfall just east of Pensacola, Opal went from a Category 2 Hurricane, to a strong Category 4 Hurricane. As everyone went to bed that night, the central pressure was 951 millibars. At 4:45 a.m. CDT, Air Force Reconnaissance reported an alarming central pressure of 916 millibars and winds were estimated at a devastating 150 mph. This made Opal the strongest of record in the Atlantic in October. The rapid intensification of 36 millibars had occurred in just nine hours!

At this time Opal was 250 nautical miles south-southwest of Pensacola, Florida. Frantic warnings caused a massive last minute evacuation from the Gulf Coast, resulting in massive traffic jams and concerns that everyone might not get out before hurricane conditions arrived.

Fortunately, Opal could not maintain peak intensity as the inner eyewall collapsed within a few hours. The maximum sustained winds were 115 mph near the center of the storm. Mary Esther, Florida recorded sustained winds of 80 mph with a questionable wind gust to 144 mph.

Although winds were diminishing at the time of landfall, extensive damage due to a storm surge of fifteen feet and breaking waves occurred over most of the coastal areas of the Florida panhandle. The estimated U.S. death toll from direct causes was nine. Total damage was $3 billion.

Researchers believe that Opal moved over a warm water eddy over the Gulf of Mexico which had broken off from the Gulf Stream. Water in the eddy was a degree or two warmer than in the surrounding area, allowing the storm to strengthen rapidly.

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Bill Murray is the President of The Weather Factory. He is the site’s official weather historian and a weekend forecaster. He also anchors the site’s severe weather coverage. Bill Murray is the proud holder of National Weather Association Digital Seal #0001 @wxhistorian

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  1. mmiklik says:

    She is the reason I’m not a big fan of hurricanes or TS especially during the evening hours.. I was in MTG at the time and that was enough for me.. Came very very close to having a very large tree fall on my apt but it fell a different direction just missing my house.. So I count my blessings.. Only plus was I didn’t have to work that night..

  2. JT says:

    It would be rlaly neat if you did a blog about the wind impacts in alabama..that’s what most of us remember about OPal

  3. shep says:

    Opal’s strongest winds came through Gadsden in the early morning hours.I looked outside before sunrise and did not think it had been a very big deal-as it got lighter I realized there were trees down all over my 3 acres.19 hardwoods and 3 pines were down.Almost all fell in one direction,westward.The bright side was that I did not have to buy any firewood for years!!

  4. Acid Reign says:

    …..Opal was really scary, here in Birmingham. We lost a couple of trees. The wind HOWLED for hours. We didn’t much sleep, huddled up in the basement. The power was out for about 4 days, on that one. Came back on near the end of the Auburn/Mississippi State game, which had been moved from Thursday to Saturday, due to the storm.

  5. James (Tuscaloosa) says:

    Was in Mobile at the time. I went going to bed thinking it would miss the area. Woke up the next morning w/ local TV going beserk over Opal upgraded to a Cat 4 and at the time, pointed straight up at Mobile Bay.

  6. Vic at Scrougeout says:

    I was living in Glencoe (Gadsden) at the time. I emtied my almost full rain gauge just before dark, then it ran over during the night, so rainfall was more than 10″. The center passed between Gadsden & Anniston putting the eyewall almost directly over this area. Winds blew about 65 mph with gusts to 90 mph for several hours. It was amazing watching huge trees bend over almost to the ground. Many never it made it back up. The next morning neighbors and I had to cut our way out as almost every road or street had trees down. It looked like almost every pine and pecan tree in town came down. I remember looking up a bright blue skies while cutting up a tree and seeing a Magnificent Frigatebird flying overhead. They are sometimes seen along the Gulf Coast, but usually remain out at sea.

  7. Amy (Oakman) says:

    I was living in Niceville, FL at the time of Opal. This was just a few miles east of FWB and Mary Esther. Because my husband was not home from work yet, I was watching the late news reports. When my husband got home, Opal was category 4 and looked to be heading straight for us. We made the decision to pack quickly and head to my parent’s home just outside of Carbon Hill. I was teaching at the time and I felt sure there wouldn’t be any school the next day…if by some CHANCE there was, I was just going to call in and tell them I needed a sub! We drove overnight to my parent’s home in the usual 5 – 6 hours. It was one of the best weather decisions we ever made. My husband’s brother and his wife called us the next morning to ask if they could evacuate to my parent’s home as well. It took them 10 – 11 hours to make the same trip! We know so many people who had a very difficult time evacuating from that storm.

  8. ladybug says:

    i am orignally from concord area, but was in marion the day that opal hit at school at judson. i remember that they had advised against anyone leaving to go home due to weather conditons getting worse. i stayed there and needless to say the weather got awful, the winds and rain was terrible. after the storm it was hard to get around for a few days due to tress down and water standing in some areas. then not but 3 years later the F5 hit my hometown. my now hubby was not in the state during either one of these storms so he doesnt know what we went through. (he was in the navy on a boat) he doest understand why i dont like storms (LOL). well all take care this week, maybe we will not have much, my yard has not recovered from the last round of rain.

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