One of the strongest hurricanes in U.S. history made a beeline for Middle Georgia after it crashed into the Florida panhandle.
Hurricane Michael’s 155 mph winds were just shy of Category 5 status at landfall.
The storm’s speed was disastrous for extreme southwest Georgia but helped saved the Macon area from widespread damage.
“This one was moving pretty fast so it was able to get way far inland before it dispersed that energy from the Gulf of Mexico,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Matt Sena.
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While that meant stronger winds near the southwest Georgia border, Michael also moved quickly through the midstate, which lessened flash flooding and effects from prolonged tropical storm force winds.
“A little slower and things might have been different,” Sena said.
Michael remained a hurricane as it hit near Cordele at about 11 p.m. Wednesday but weakened to under 74 mph sustained winds by the time it reached the Macon area just after midnight. Michael was designated a tropical storm as it tracked between Macon and Dublin near the juncture of U.S. 441 and Ga. 96 at about 2 a.m., Sena said.
According to preliminary data collected by the Peachtree City Office of the National Weather Service, Cordele had a wind gust of 69 mph at 10:10 p.m. Wednesday. Just before midnight, Eastman clocked a 63-mph gust while Dublin was hit with a 61-mph gust at 12:15 a.m. Thursday.
Macon’s strongest recorded wind gust of 53 mph occurred on the back side of storm at the Middle Georgia Regional Airport just before 3 a.m. Thursday. Before midnight, Perry was hit with a 52-mph gust just after 11:35 p.m.
By comparison in September of 2017, Hurricane Irma brought stronger wind gusts of 61 mph in Macon and 54 mph in Perry and Dublin.
Trees began falling before dawn on Sept. 11 while Irma was still hours away.
After Irma, nearly 100,000 cubic yards of storm debris was collected in Bibb County alone.
“Even Nottingham (Drive) was not destroyed as much as it was for Irma,” Bibb County sheriff’s public affairs Lt. Sean DeFoe said Thursday.
Sheriff’s deputies held a briefing late Wednesday to discuss whether conditions warranted them coming off the streets to seek shelter.
During the height of the storm between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. in Macon, officers were still on the road and answering multiple burglar alarm calls as the power flickered, DeFoe said.
Between 7 p.m. Wednesday and 7 a.m. Thursday deputies responded to 21 crashes including five with injuries, 106 commercial alarms, 23 residential alarms and 49 tree down calls.
Only a handful of crashes were reported on the nearly deserted streets in the early morning hours.
“I think this time they heeded the warnings,” DeFoe said.
As the unseasonably warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico fueled Michael into a meteorological monster, folks in Middle Georgia braced for the worst.
In downtown Macon early Thursday, Damon Taylor didn’t have a television to watch or cellphone for weather alerts.
Wind whipped rain fell sideways at times as the homeless 42-year-old rode out Michael in a parking garage on Mulberry Street.
“It was really, really bad for the trees because the trees were blowing left and right,” Taylor said. “Trash cans were blowing up the road and it seemed like it was rough but no business or house damage or nothing like that so it might have blown over for a while.”
Macon-Bibb County Emergency Management Agency director Spencer Hawkins noted that Irma took out so many of the county’s weak trees that stronger trunks must have prevailed in Michael.
Also, Irma’s track through the midstate followed heavy rains that loosened the soil.
Michael had a much tighter rain field with concentrated precipitation, Sena said.
“We did not have 12 hours of heavy rain before it got here like Irma,” he said.
A National Weather Service unofficial rainfall report shows up to 5 inches fell with Michael in Macon, while McDonough was the wettest part of the northern half of Georgia with 7.68 inches of rain. A rain gauge in northeast Macon collected 3.62 inches of rain from 7 a.m. Wednesday until 7 a.m. Thursday.
Just as survey teams will assess whether a tornado touched down in Crawford County on Wednesday afternoon as the storm approached, meteorologists will also review Hurricane Michael’s strength at landfall.
The ferocious winds proved too much for some weather reporting stations so exact winds speeds along the Florida Gulf Coast might not have been recorded.
It is possible the history books will show Michael might have been a minimal Category 5 storm after all.
“If the difference was 2 miles per hour, was it really a difference?” Sena asked. “Even if it says 155 (mph) it was on heck of a storm. ... There has been no comparable storm in the Florida panhandle.”