When Hurricane Michael made landfall as a Category 4 storm on Oct. 10, it drove a wall of water 10 to 15 feet high across large swaths of the once sleepy seaside Gulf town of Mexico Beach, Fla. Propelled by the storm’s sustained winds of 150 miles per hour, the water reached almost half a mile inland at some points. Entire housing developments were reduced to their foundations.
At least two beachfront homes were ripped off their pilings and floated clear to the other side of the street, one with a family still inside. Despite official orders to evacuate, some 250 of the town’s 1,000 residents attempted to weather the hurricane. As of Wednesday morning, Oct. 17, seven days after the storm, authorities had confirmed two deaths in Mexico Beach, and one person remained unaccounted for. Many residents say they were surprised by how quickly the storm developed.
Previous storms “always slow down and build, but this one was different,” said Caroline McClain, of Adel, Ga. She has been coming down to Mexico Beach her whole life and is the matriarch of a clan that owns several vacation properties in town. On the fourth day after the storm, she was picking through the rubble of one property, wondering why this storm had grown in power so suddenly. “I think it’s because it’s been so hot, really, really hot,” she said.
At least two beachfront homes were ripped off their pilings and floated clear to the other side of the street, one with a family still inside.
Human-driven climate change is intensifying tropical cyclones across the globe, climatologists say, but the role it played in the tragedy at Mexico Beach is both subtle and surprising. “There are two aspects to the changing climate as it relates to the hurricanes and the ocean,” explained meteorologist Bryan Norcross of Miami’s television station WPLG. Both contribute to higher sea levels, which mean more powerful and larger storm surges.
“The first is water temperature,” said Mr. Norcross.
According to Climate Central, a clearinghouse for information on climate science, both the maximum and the average sea surface temperature of the Gulf of Mexico have risen. And because heat causes matter to expand, hotter water means higher oceans. The process is called thermal expansion, and it is actually fairly easy to measure.
The second aspect of the impact of climate change, according to Mr. Norcross, is “melting glaciers [that] affect the general rise of sea level everywhere.” That effect is much harder to measure since scientists are still figuring out how to accurately model the impact and rate of glacier and ice cap melt.
“I called her and told her to come away,” she said, her voice growing tremulous, “that this storm was a little bit different. She was 78.”
Mr. Norcross does not believe rising sea levels had much of a direct effect on the level of damage produced by Hurricane Michael. “It doesn’t make anything any better, and on the margins it doesn’t make anything significantly worse,” he said.
According to Mr. Norcross, what really amplified the storm surge that wrecked Mexico Beach was the shape of the sea floor along the gulf. “If you have a big gradual shelf, the energy [of the storm] gets deflected forwards, not upwards,” he said.
Luckily, most storms only have a narrow corridor of storm surge. Apalachicola, which is only some 40 miles away from Mexico Beach, did not experience anything nearly as destructive in terms of ocean surge.
Jane Knight, an elderly resident of Mexico Beach who has lived here for 30 years, rode out the storm at her son’s house farther inland in Georgia. Today she has a more pressing worry than gauging the impact of climate change on Hurricane Michael. Her neighbor Agnes is among the missing.
“She lived right there and she stayed,” she said. Ms. Knight points to the tattered foundations of a home across the street from where hers once stood. “I called her and told her to come away,” she said, her voice growing tremulous, “that this storm was a little bit different. She was 78.”
As she and her son and his wife pick through what is left of their home, a South Florida search-and-rescue team arrives with a cadaver dog. Ms. Knight points them in the direction of Agnes’s home, and the dog and its handler start off on their own search.
Brooke Butte, 54, had remained in Mexico Beach as Michael raged. “I didn’t have the money to evacuate,” he explained, “but next time I’m leaving. It was absolutely horrible. I’ll never do that again.
“The storm sounded like a freight train for four hours straight,” he said.
Mr. Butte lives in a trailer a few miles inland, off Route 386, but he works at the Gulf View Motel, which used to be a clean and well-run inn just across the street from the beach. Now the motel is a shattered ruin.
The water has so thoroughly scoured the site that it is hard to tell where the motel’s rooms once were. Charles Smith, the owner, rode out the storm in the structure’s second-floor stairwell with his two cats and two dogs. “The water came in about noon or so, and it lasted for about three hours,” he said.
“I could hear the waves [below me]. It was an eerie feeling.”