Hurricane Michael was upgraded Friday to a Category 5 storm, a designation that financially strapped local officials pursued to try to increase federal assistance to Northwest Florida.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that the National Hurricane Center’s post-storm analysis determined the Oct. 10 storm had an estimated intensity at landfall of 160 mph, 5 mph stronger than previously listed.
The change bumped the storm into the most-powerful classification on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale.
“Category 5 winds were likely experienced over a very small area at and near the coast, and the change in estimated wind speeds is of little practical significance in terms of the impacts associated with the storm,” NOAA said in a news release.
As desperation grows among Panhandle communities for additional state aid and a federal relief package, the reclassification wasn’t a surprise.
“This confirms what we already knew. Hurricane Michael was one of the most devastating storms in Florida and U.S. history,” Gov. Ron DeSantis posted on Facebook. “I will continue to fight for Northwest Florida as our state rebuilds.”
Officials have argued for the higher classification, noting that the change could increase Federal Emergency Management Agency reimbursements from 75 percent under a Category 4 storm to 90 percent and possibly 100 percent.
Also Friday, DeSantis announced Bay County is getting $18.5 million in federal reimbursement for removing 2.3 million cubic yards of debris in the 45 days following the storm. DeSantis had received a commitment from the White House that 45 days’ worth of debris collection would receive 100 percent federal reimbursements.
The Category 5 announcement came as the Legislature heads into budget negotiations next week with the House and Senate each proposing about $225 million in additional Michael-related funding for the fiscal year starting July 1. Meanwhile, the wait for a federal disaster relief package has stretched beyond six months.
Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis said in a statement Friday the “prolonged recovery process” has been exacerbated by the “lack of compassion of members of Congress turning a blind eye to the hardships in Northwest Florida.”
“I hope this news (of the upgrade to a Category 5 storm) serves as a strong wake-up call to those prioritizing politics over real people fighting to get by,” Patronis, a Panama City resident, said. “The Panhandle has so many families struggling as they piece their lives back together bit by bit — we need relief now.”
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, noting the storm’s $1.3 billion hit to the state’s timber industry, also took on Congress for fighting over a relief package.
“Disaster relief has typically passed Congress in mere weeks following other disasters, which begs the question: why not here?” Fried wrote. “This Category 5 designation should make our state eligible for additional federal disaster aid, for which Floridians continue to patiently wait — but time is running out.”
Farmers have expressed concerns about being unable to obtain loans to begin replanting. Bay County School District officials have warned of pending layoffs reaching 600 without state and federal assistance for basic operations. Estimated insured losses have topped $6.22 billion, according to the state Office of Insurance Regulation.
Michael came ashore near Mexico Beach and Tyndall Air Force Base and caused devastation in Panama City and communities such as Port St. Joe, Blountstown and Marianna as it roared north into Georgia.
The change Friday made Michael the first Category 5 storm to hit the U.S. since Hurricane Andrew came ashore in South Florida in 1992.
The only other Category 5 storms to make landfall in the U.S. are the Labor Day storm of 1935 and Hurricane Camille, which hit Pass Christian, Miss., in 1969.
The hurricane center held Michael’s atmospheric pressure — a measure of a storm’s intensity — at 919 millibars at landfall, the third lowest on record for a U.S. landfall since 1900.