Against the Grain II

The Gulf of Mexico is a powder keg for hurricanes

Vaughn Wilson

Living in the southern region of the United States of America has its advantages. The warm year-round temperatures provides for quality seafood, access to outdoor entertainment and a refuge from snow.

Many U.S. residents choose to move down South to retire and enjoy the twilight years.

However, it does not come without a cost. While snow closes schools in the North and tornadoes formulate out of thin air in the Midwest and fires rage in the West, the South has to deal with the tropical cyclones we call hurricanes.

Usually forming in Central America, the Caribbean or Mexico, hurricanes follow paths that are accurately predicted by universal weather models based on the jet streams present in North America. The difference in hurricanes and other forms of natural disasters is its predictability. Residents are informed nearly a week in advance of impending danger associated with them and often have several options for safety measures.  

There is one factor that can determine the ferocity of a hurricane though … the Gulf of Mexico. 

No more was this evident than Hurricane Michael of 2018. It formed in the Southwest Caribbean and made a path for the Florida panhandle. The eye of the storm crossed into the U.S. at Mexico Beach, just south of Panama City Beach, Fla.

The statistics of Michael are staggering and historic. It was the first Category 5, the highest rating given to a hurricane by NOAA, since Hurricane Andrew ravaged South Florida in 1992, leveling areas of Miami. Michael cause 74 deaths and an estimated $26 billion in damages.

It had been wavering on being a somewhat serious cyclone until Oct. 7, 2018. On that day it had sustained winds of 45-60 miles per hour, but as it began to strengthen in the warm waters of the Gulf, it entered the realm of rapid intensification. Until this time, Michael was still a tropical storm, but by Oct. 8, it had been classified as a category 1 hurricane.

Michael continued to churn in the Gulf of Mexico and went from a Category 3 on Oct. 8 to a Category 5 by the time it crushed Mexico Beach and a wide band of the Florida panhandle.

The Gulf of Mexico under normal circumstances is a wonderful bay of water. It’s ideal for fishing and has some of the nation’s best oysters, grouper and blue crabs. It’s ideal for surfing, scuba diving and jet skiing. It borders on Florida, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Texas.

The Gulf is a major oil drilling environment as well as one of the busiest  ports for shipping those fuels. No more was that evidenced than in the 2010 tragedy of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig that dumped an estimated 134 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. 

Unfortunately, the biggest characteristic of the Gulf of Mexico is its ability to turn meager tropical storms into hurricanes and hurricanes into super hurricanes. If the Gulf of Mexico was in a video game, it would be the big pill that Pac Man used to gobble up the ghosts that were chasing him. Once a tropical storm or hurricane hits the warm and energizing waters of the Gulf, often we need to evacuate much like the ghosts in Pac Man.

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