When Hurricane Opal hit the Florida Panhandle in October 1995 - it was the first major hurricane to visit the region in 20 years. Although Hurricane Elena brushed the region in 1985, not since Eloise in 1975, had the Panhandle received a direct hit from a major hurricane. Although Opal was barely a major hurricane - in a weakening mode - when the eye crossed the coast, property damage was rather severe. Most of the new housing and commercial developments had yet to experience a storm of Opal's magnitude. The 8 to 14 foot storm surge did most of the damage, destroying hundreds of structures along the coast.
Hurricane Opal originated from an area of disturbed weather to the east of Cozumel, Mexico in late September. Passing over the Yucatan Peninsula, Opal reached tropical storm strength on September 30 in the southwestern Gulf of Mexico. Opal reached hurricane intensity on October 2nd, and begin a slow northward motion in response to an upper level trough moving the through the central United States. A hurricane watch was issued on October 3 from Morgan City, Louisiana to Pensacola, Florida.
Late on October 3, as Opal headed toward the northeast Gulf coast, the hurricane strengthend at a frightening rate. NOAA and Air Force Hurricane Hunter aircraft reported the pressure was falling at the rate of 3 mb an hour. By early the next day (October 4), aircraft reported the pressure had fallen to 916 mb (27.05 in), and sustained winds had increased to 150 mph. Opal, now almost a category 5 hurricane, was located 250 miles southwest of Pensocola, Florida.
The eye of Hurricane Opal crossed the coast near Santa Rosa Island around 6:00 pm on October 4th. In a very fortunate turn of events - Opal weakened greatly in the final 8 hours before landfall, although still coming ashore at the lower end of a major hurricane. Sustained winds of 115 mph, with gusts to 140 mph, occurred across a short stretch of coastline between Destin and Panama City, Florida. Outside of the narrow stretch of coastline, winds of 80 to 100 mph were experienced. Hurlburt Air Field, near the eye of Opal, recorded 92 mph winds, gusting to 144 mph. Panama City recorded sustained winds of 65 mph with a peak gust of 86 mph.
The barometric pressure at landfall in Opal was 942 mb (27.83). This was recorded by aircraft just prior to landfall near Pensacola Beach. A pressure of 948 mb was measured by an automated weather station in Pensacola near I- 10. In terms of barometric pressure, Opal was deeper than Eloise in 1975 (955 mb), however the winds in Eloise were likely stronger.
The storm surge that occurred during Hurricane Opal, unlike the wind speeds, was constistent with a major hurricane. Almost all of the major damage in Opal was caused by the storm surge. According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Mobile District), still-water mark elevations measured inside buildings and tidal gauge measurements, showed tides reached from 8 to 14 feet above mean sea level. The combined effect of surge and waves together however, reached 12 to 20 feet above sea level. The Panama City Beach Pier recorded peak tidal surge of 8.3 feet above mean tide, with wave run-up to 18.1 feet.
STORM SURGE!: Beach sand piled in 12 foot drifts across US Highway 98 after Hurricane Opal.
The storm surge during Opal along the Florida Panhandle rivaled that of Eloise in 1975. According to the State of Florida - Hurricane Opal destroyed more coastal structures in Florida than all other coastal storms over the past 20 years combined. About 200 miles of shoreline suffered damage, from Pensacola Beach to St. Joseph Spit in Gulf County. Florida DEP data indicate that 1,000 structures along the Gulf of Mexico incurred 50 percent or more damage as a result of Opal. Twenty-foot sand dunes were completely swept away, while the lower floors of many beach homes were filled with five feet of sand. Incredibly, a mile long strip of U.S. Highway 98 near Eglin Air Force Base, was destroyed, the ocean surge had scoured away the pavement and left 12 foot sand drifts across the the interstate highway (above). In the early morning light - U.S 98 looked more like a snow-covered highway in North Dakota, than a roadway through the subtropical Gulf states.
Although the coastal destruction that occurred along the Florida Panhandle was severe, some of the modern hurricane mitigation strategies proved their merit. Many new structures built to code on pilings, survived the worst of Opal, while other at-grade structures were swept away. The environmentally designed beachfront community of Seaside, Florida, provided a good example of the benefits of a hurricane resistant community. Designed by developer Robert Davis, Seaside, Florida is a model of proper and intelligent setbacks and land use management. Although a beach front community - Seaside homes are set well away from the ocean, as a result, the natural process of the dunes absorbing wave and surge impact worked - none of the homes in Seaside suffered any damage.
As Opal moved inland into southern Georgia, heavy rains and gusting winds knocked out power to over 2 million people in the southeastern United States. As Opal moved north and weakened over the southeast, falling branches killed several people in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. A tornado touched down from the spiral bands in Opal in Crestview, Florida killing a young woman.
For a tropical cyclone that was barely a major storm when it crossed the coast, Opal's toll was high. Nine people were killed in the United States, most from falling trees, while flash flooding and mud slides on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico killed 50. According to the Property Claim Services Division of The American Insurance Group (AIG-1997) the damage to insured property was $2.1 billion. Total property damage to date is estimated at $3.0 billion.