Hurricane Michael strengthens to Category 2 as it bears down on Gulf Coast

Posted at 7:10 AM, Oct 09, 2018
and last updated 2018-10-09 09:10:18-04

Hurricane Michael is threatening more than 300 miles of the Gulf Coast, prompting emergency declarations in more than 100 counties from Mobile, Alabama through the Florida Panhandle and into the state's Big Bend region.

Residents in those areas are being warned to prepare for Michael to make landfall Wednesday as a "dangerous major hurricane," bringing damaging winds, and life-threatening storm surge and flash flooding.

"#HurricaneMichael isn't heading to any one town..." the National Weather Service tweeted Monday. "There are warnings for more than 300 miles of coastline. It's forecast to be a large and dangerous hurricane at landfall."

Michael is now a Category 2 storm with sustained winds of 100 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center. Michael is expected to undergo another rapid intensification in the next 24 hours.

The center said Michael could reach land as a Category 3 hurricane, with maximum sustained winds of at least 111 mph. Storms with winds of at least 111 mph are designated as "major" hurricanes.

Damaging winds to extend inland

A hurricane warning is in place from the Alabama-Florida border to the Suwannee River in Florida. A hurricane watch is in effect for the coast of Alabama.

Meantime, tropical storm warnings extend from the Chassahowitzka River to the Mississippi-Alabama border. Tropical storm watches are in effect in some coastal areas of Mississippi, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.

"Damaging winds will also extend inland across portions of the Florida Panhandle, southern Georgia, and southeast Alabama as Michael moves inland,"the hurricane center cautioned. "Heavy rainfall from Michael could produce life-threatening flash flooding from the Florida Panhandle and Big Bend region into portions of Georgia and South Carolina."

Storm surge warnings are also in place along the Florida and Alabama coasts.

"Regardless of the eventual track and intensity of Michael, life-threatening storm surge inundation is expected along portions of the Florida Panhandle and Big Bend/Nature Coast, and the storm surge watch has been upgraded to a storm surge warning for parts of this area," the center said.

Some Florida counties ordered to evacuate

Floridians scurried to prepare after Gov. Rick Scott extended a state of emergency to 35 counties and activated 1,250 National Guardsmen for hurricane duty.

"This storm will be life-threatening and extremely dangerous," Scott said at a news conference Sunday. "This storm has the potential to bring devastating impacts to communities across the Panhandle and Big Bend and every family must be prepared."

"Everybody's got to get ready. Don't take a chance," he said. "We're going to get storm surge, we have wind, we have a chance of flooding, we have a significant chance of tornadoes."

The governor has declared states of emergency for Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton, Holmes, Washington, Bay, Jackson, Calhoun, Gulf, Gadsden, Liberty, Franklin, Leon, Wakulla, Jefferson, Madison, Taylor, Hamilton, Suwannee, Lafayette, Dixie, Columbia, Gilchrist, Levy, Citrus, Pasco, Hernando, Pinellas, Hillsborough, Manatee, Alachua, Union, Bradford and Baker counties.

Mandatory and voluntary evacuation orders were issued along the Florida Panhandle and Scott said on Twitterthat he has directed the Florida Department of Transportation to suspend tolls in the northwest Florida region.

The Florida Highway Patrol is sending 100 state troopers to the Panhandle and Big Bend areas in preparation for the storm, he said.

Florida State University campuses in Tallahassee and Panama City plan to close Tuesday through Friday.

Alabama prepares for widespread power outages

In Alabama, Gov. Kay Ivey issued a statewide state of emergency, saying on Twitterthat it was "in anticipation of wide-spread power outages, wind damage and debris produced by high winds & heavy rain associated with #HurricaneMichael."

The governor's declaration activates the state's emergency operations plan, according to Ivey's office.

"I am concerned about the cone of uncertainty as Hurricane Michael is leaning west today," Alabama Emergency Management Agency Director Brian Hastings said in a statement Monday. "Residents and businesses in coastal Alabama must be vigilant and closely monitor the storm's path and be prepared for a major hurricane."

Hurricane conditions expected in western Cuba

In the Caribbean, a hurricane warning for the Cuban province of Pinar del Rio was downgraded to a tropical storm warning Tuesday morning, while a tropical storm warning was discontinued for the Isle of Youth. A warning for the coast of Mexico from Tulum to Cabo Catoche, was canceled late Monday.

"Tropical storm conditions conditions will continue over portions of the far western Cuban province of Pinar del Rio for the next few hours," the National Hurricane Center said Tuesday morning.

Michael is expected to produce heavy rainfall and flash flooding over portions of western Cuba during the next day or so,"it said.

According to an alert published by the Cuban Civil Defense, meteorologists warned affected residents that they could experience hurricane-force winds. Officials also alerted residents living on the coast of the possibility of flooding caused by the storm.

Over the weekend, flooding related to Michael led to at least 13 deaths in the Central American countries of Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador, according to officials in those countries.