The raw power of Hurricane Ian’s winds

This satellite image taken at 3:06 p.m. EDT and provided by NOAA shows Hurricane Ian making landfall in southwest Florida near Cayo Costa, Fla., on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022, as a catastrophic Category 4 storm. (NOAA via AP) (Uncredited)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Hurricane Ian slammed Southwest Florida as a major hurricane, producing winds rarely seen anywhere on Earth.

At landfall, maximum sustained winds were at 150 mph, making Ian just shy of a Category 5 major hurricane.

Hurricane Hunters inside Ian before landfall recorded winds over 150 mph, with a minimum pressure of 936 mb. The pressure difference between the center of the storm and the surrounding atmosphere is what causes the high winds.

But did those extreme winds make it onto land? We don’t fully know.

The problem with measuring high winds

Most reliable wind measurement equipment begins to fail once winds hit 100 mph.

The airport weather stations in Fort Myers failed long before the worst of Ian hit. The Punta Gorda airport weather station finally failed after taking hours of hurricane-force winds.

Other properly calibrated weather instruments also began to fail as winds increased.

We do know that a wind gust of 140 mph was recorded in Cape Coral, a suburb west of Fort Myers in Lee County. The Punta Gorda airport did report a gust of 135 mph before failing later in the day.

Southwest Florida peak wind gusts during Ian.

Winds of this power would be comparable to being hit by a tornado. The only difference these winds lasted for hours.

We can say with high certainty that winds well over 100 mph did impact portions of Lee, Charlotte and DeSoto counties in Southwest Florida.

We know this from Doppler radar velocity scans and from damage surveys by the National Weather Service and government officials.

A lot of wind, little area

The very high winds of a major hurricane are actually concentrated in a fairly narrow area.

At landfall, the National Hurricane Center estimated hurricane-force winds extend up to 45 miles from the center. These are winds above 74 mph.

This means that a swath of 90 miles dealt with hurricane-force winds.

The most intense winds are only found in the eyewall of a storm.

Unfortunately, Ian had a large eye that was estimated at 35 miles across, which means the most intense winds were confined to 70-80 miles.

The most intense winds are in a narrow corridor in the inner eyewall. This is the area right around the eye itself. Here, winds were likely over 120 mph.

Ian projected winds in Southwest Florida.

This does not mean high winds were not found outside this corridor.

Tropical storm-force winds extended 175 miles from the center. These are winds above 39 mph.

This creates a large 350-mile corridor of tropical storm-force winds. Winds that are capable of doing damage.

This much larger corridor created the minor wind damage seen in cities like Tampa, Orlando, Daytona Beach and even St. Augustine.

The difference between wind and storm surge damage

One of the most common myths concerning hurricanes is most of the damage occurs due to winds.

While high winds can cause significant damage, the majority of the extreme damage seen in Southwest Florida was caused by storm surge.

In Florida, most homes and structures built after the mid-1990s have to rated to a certain wind threshold.

Wind damage at the Punta Gorda airport from Ian. The worst damage in Southwest Florida was a product of storm surge, not high winds. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert) (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Some of the worst winds were in Charlotte County, but damage was limited due to many homes and buildings in that area having been built in the last 20 years.

Fortunately, due to the recent high growth of Southwest Florida, the vast majority of homes and structures in the region have been built post-2000.

This helped mitigate some of the significant wind damage that other areas, like the Caribbean islands, often see.

However, some wood-frame structures did suffer significant wind damage.

Manufactured homes and RVs saw significant issues, including the loss of the entire home.

But the worst damage in Southwest Florida was a result of storm surge.

Storm surge is capable of doing incredible things, like lifting boats onto land, and wiping entire homes off their foundations and into the sea.

Ian on a short list

With winds of 155 mph at landfall, Ian is a very short list of major hurricane strikes in Florida.

When rated by wind, Ian is tied for fourth as the strongest hurricane to hit Florida in recorded history.

Strongest Florida hurricanes, as rated by peak winds.

The strongest hurricane by wind to strike the sunshine state was the Great Labor Day Hurricane of 1935. Winds were estimated at 185 mph as it made landfall in the Florida Keys.

Ian is the strongest hurricane to strike the state since Hurricane Michael, which had winds of 160 mph.

We will continue to discuss more about Ian and its impacts in the coming days.

About the Author:

David Heckard is The Weather Authority's Assistant Chief Meteorologist.