22 years ago today, Hurricane Opal makes landfall

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(WTVY) -- On this day 22 years ago, Hurricane Opal made landfall in the southeastern United States.

After spending several days in the far southwestern Gulf as a tropical depression, then as a tropical storm, Opal finally started moving northeast into the central Gulf.

During the morning of Oct 4, Hurricane Opal intensified explosively – falling from 951 mb (Cat 3 strength) to 916 mb (with 150 mph winds, almost Cat 5 strength) – a drop of 35 mb in 9 hours! (1 mb drop per hour is considered rapid strengthening).

In fact, once this news became public, most Florida panhandle north/south highways became gridlocked with residents trying to flee the coast (a lesson most local emergency officials have remembered).

Fortunately, by midday the favorable atmospheric setup that stimulated such rapid intensification quickly turned less favorable, and Opal ’weakened’ to a ‘marginal’ Cat 3 hurricane with sustained winds around 115 mph at landfall near the Ft. Walton Beach / Destin area Wednesday evening Oct. 4.

Hurricane force sustained winds and gusts near 100 mph blew through much of Okaloosa and Walton counties in Florida. Winds of 50 to 80 mph were reported through much of southern and southeastern Alabama.

The damage along the coast near the center of Opal was major and extensive, but if Opal had maintained its earlier strength, the damage would have been catastrophic and overwhelming.

Opal’s death toll was a total of 9 – mostly away from the coast where wind blown trees fell onto cars and homes. Some of the deaths were in northwestern Georgia. Again, had Opal been as strong as it was earlier, that death toll would have soared.

One of the big effects from Opal was the massive amount of sand driven inland. Many hotels and motels in the Ft. Walton Beach area had 3 to 5 feet of white sand on their first floor deposited by wave action.