Hurricane Michael strengthens to Category 4 as it nears Florida coast

It has maximum-sustained winds of 130 mph

(RNN) - Hurricane Michael is headed toward the Florida coast as a Category 4 storm, with more strengthening possible as it approaches.

It’s bringing a life-threatening storm surge, hurricane-force winds and heavy rainfall to the northeastern Gulf Coast.

Residents of 13 Florida counties along the Panhandle and the west coast have been issued a mandatory evacuation order. Nine other counties have been issued voluntary or phased evacuation orders.

Many businesses in Panama City Beach, FL, were reportedly shuttered Tuesday evening as Michael neared.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott announced 34 shelters were opening across the state in preparation.

Landfall is expected Wednesday afternoon at the center of the Florida Panhandle.

In its 2 a.m. ET report Wednesday, the National Hurricane Center said tropical storm-force winds were extending up to 175 miles outward of the storm’s center. Hurricane-force winds were extending outward up to 45 miles from the center.

The NHC reported the storm was about 180 miles south-southwest of Panama City, FL. Producing heavy rainfall and strong winds, Michael is moving north at 12 mph, and it’s packing maximum-sustained winds of 130 mph.

It’s expected to produce a life-threatening storm surge for much of Florida and potentially Alabama’s coastlines. More than 300 miles of coastline from Mobile, AL, through the Florida Panhandle and Big Bend area are threatened, according to the NHC.

Mandatory evacuations have been ordered for the following Florida counties: Bay, Citrus, Dixie, Franklin, Gadsden, Gulf, Jackson, Jefferson, Levy, Okaloosa, Taylor, Wakulla and Walton.

Voluntary or phased evacuations have been issued for these Florida counties: Calhoun, Hernando, Leon, Liberty, Madison, Pasco, Santa Rosa, Washington and Escambia.

Those in mobile homes or other weak structures in particular were urged to leave. Tolls were suspended in order to help people evacuate.

By Monday morning, generators were sold out in many Tallahassee-area stores, according to the Tallahassee Democrat. Residents also stocked up on food, water and gas.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott expanded a state of emergency declaration Tuesday to include 35 counties in preparation for the storm.

“This storm is dangerous, and if you don’t follow warnings from officials, this storm could kill you,” Scott said.

President Donald Trump has approved an emergency declaration for Florida, meaning that federal aid will be available to the state to assist in hurricane recovery.

The White House released a statement, saying: “FEMA is authorized to identify, mobilize, and provide at its discretion, equipment and resources necessary to alleviate the impacts of the emergency.”

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey declared a state of emergency for her state Tuesday because of expected widespread power outages and wind damage.

On Tuesday, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency for 92 counties in anticipation of the hurricane-force winds and life-threatening flash floods Michael could bring to parts of the state.

A storm surge warning is in effect from the Okaloosa-Walton County line to the Anclote River in Florida. A storm surge watch is in effect for the Anclote River to Anna Maria Island, including Tampa Bay, and for the Alabama-Florida border to the Okaloosa-Walton County line.

“Water levels will rise well in advance of the center of Michael, and residents within the storm surge warning area should finish preparations to protect life and property today,” the NHC said Tuesday afternoon.

After making landfall, Michael is expected to cut a path across the Southeast, including North and South Carolina, states that are still recovering from Hurricane Florence in September. The storm is expected to hit parts of Alabama and Georgia before heading northward to Virginia and Maryland.

Heavy rainfall could produce life-threatening flash flooding from the Florida Panhandle and Big Bend region, into parts of Georgia, the Carolinas and southeast Virginia.

A hurricane warning has been issued from the Alabama-Florida border to the Suwannee River.

Tropical storm warnings have been issued from the Alabama-Florida border to the Mississippi-Alabama border, from the Suwanee River to the Chassahowitzka River in Florida, and for Fernandina Beach, FL, to the South Santee River, SC.

A tropical storm watch is in effect along the southeastern coast of the U.S., from the Chassahowitzka River to Anna Maria Island in Florida, including Tampa Bay, the Mississippi-Alabama border to the mouth of the Pearl River, the South Santee River, SC, to Duck, NC, and for the Pamlico and Albemarle Sounds.

A satellite image shows Hurricane Michael in the Gulf of Mexico. The dangerous storm is heading toward northwest Florida.
A satellite image shows Hurricane Michael in the Gulf of Mexico. The dangerous storm is heading toward northwest Florida. (Source: GOES-East/NOAA)

The Florida Panhandle and Big Bend areas, in addition to southern portions of Alabama and Georgia, are expected to receive as much as 12 inches of rain through Friday.

Eastern Georgia, the Carolinas and southern Virginia are expected to receive as much as 6 inches. The rains could bring life-threatening flash flooding.

The Florida Peninsula, eastern mid-Atlantic and southern New England coast could see as much as 3 inches of rain.

Michael, however, is expected to weaken after making landfall and as it moves across the Southeast.

The last major hurricane to hit northwest Florida was in 2005, when Hurricane Dennis made landfall at Santa Rosa Island, FL, as a Category 3 storm, the Northwest Florida Daily News reported.

No Category 4 hurricanes have made landfall in the Florida Panhandle since record keeping began in 1851.

Michael brought heavy rains to western Cuba as it moved through the area Monday. At least 13 people in Central America died as a result of the storm’s rain and flooding over the weekend, Al Jazeera reports.

Forecasters expect Michael to re-emerge over water by the end of the week, becoming extra-tropical by the weekend.

Michael is the 13th named storm of the 2018 Atlantic hurricane season and the seventh hurricane. It formed near Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula on Sunday.

Florence, the sixth named storm and first major hurricane, made landfall as a Category 1 storm the morning of Sept. 14 at Wrightsville Beach, NC.

It left at least 51 people dead across North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia, according to Reuters. The amount of damage, particularly from flooding associated with the storm, is expected to reach 11 figures.

Meanwhile, Tropical Storm Leslie re-strengthened into a hurricane again it continues traveling through the middle of the Atlantic.

The NHC announced in its 11 p.m. Tuesday update that Hurricane Leslie was 1,070 miles west-southwest of the Azores, moving to the south-southeast at 9 mph. It’s expected to travel south for the next couple of days before it turns to the east-northeast or northeast.

The storm has maximum sustained winds of 75 mph. There are no coastal watches or warnings in effect for Leslie.

The 14th named storm of the hurricane season also formed Tuesday. As of 11 p.m. ET, Tropical Storm Nadine was located about 495 miles west-southwest of Cabo Verde, an archipelago nation off the African coast.

It’s moving at 8 mph, with maximum-sustained winds of 45 mph. No coastal watches or warnings have been issued for Nadine.

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