Remembering Hurricane Opal

| October 3, 2009 @ 8:52 pm | 7 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.

Follow my weather history tweets on Twitter.com. I am @wxhistorian.

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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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