Dateline Oct. 4, 1995:  Hurricane Opal makes landfall near Pensacola Beach

Opal1994

Satellite image of Hurricane Opal as it gathers strength in the Gulf of Mexico in 1995. (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

HOLT, Fla., Oct. 4, 2017—There’s still two full months left of the hurricane season by the time October rolls around.

With the end of summer, cooler temperatures and the passing of the peak hurricane month, people often start to relax and forget about severe tropical weather.

But there’s a reason hurricane season runs through the end of November.

It was Oct. 4, 22 years ago today, that category three Hurricane Opal made landfall near Pensacola Beach.

It was the first major hurricane to strike the Florida panhandle since Hurricane Eloise landed west of Panama City in 1975.

Up to that point, the western panhandle had managed to miss major storm landfalls.

Hurricanes Camille (1969), Frederic (1979) and Erin (1995) landed far enough west of the panhandle and Eloise, Elena (1985) and Kate (1985) far enough east to only cause minor damage in the area.

Opal, however, came ashore as a category three after weakening from a category four storm off the coast just hours before.

Only a stretch of coast near the extreme eastern top of Choctawhatchee Bay to halfway between Destin and Panama City experienced maximum sustained winds of about 155 mph.

Most of the coastal areas of the Florida panhandle experienced winds of a category one or two storm, between 75 and 109 mph. Hurlburt Field reported sustained winds of 84 mph with a peak gust of 144 mph.

It was Opal’s storm surge and breaking waves that did the most damage along the coast.

Origins

While October hurricanes tend to originate in the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, Opal’s origins began as a mid-September tropical wave off the west coast of Africa.

The wave moved into the western Caribbean and became a tropical depression Sept. 27 near the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, about 70 nautical miles south-southeast of Cozumel, Mexico.

The depression moved slowly over the Yucatan for the next three days before gradually strengthening.

Aircraft reports and satellite estimates suggest Opal reached hurricane strength sometime between Oct. 2 through 4, then turned toward the northeast and gradually accelerated.

Opal intensified into a category four hurricane early Oct. 4 with maximum sustained surface winds estimated at 150 mph. It weakened to a category three before making landfall near Pensacola Beach.

Aftermath

Hwy98

About 2.5 miles of U.S. Highway 98, just east of Fort Walton Beach, is washed out by Hurricane Opal October 1995 (looking west). (photo by Department of Environmental Protection, State of Florida)

Opal weakened rapidly after moving inland.

Through it all, only one Florida death was associated with the storm as a result of a tornado in Crestview.

Opal’s main impact was from storm surge.  A combination of storm surge and breaking waves of 10-to-20 feet inundated portions of the western panhandle coast, evidenced by water marks on buildings and debris lines on sand dunes within 200 feet of the shoreline.

The combination of Opal and a frontal system resulted in heavy rains along the hurricane’s path. Rainfall totals generally ranged from 5-to-10 inches over portions of the panhandle.

Most of the severe structural damage occurred at the coastline. Broken piers, demolished homes and eroded or submerged highways were primarily a result of the surge. More than 2 miles of U.S. Highway 98 between Fort Walton Beach and Destin was washed out by Opal’s storm surge.

This season, there have already been 13 named storms; seven were hurricanes. Four of those were classified as category three or higher.

And the season’s not over yet.

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