MIAMI, Fla. (FOX 35 WOFL) - Major Hurricane Michael is still gaining strength and forecast to become a potentially devastating Category 4 storm before making landfall along Florida's northeast Gulf Coast.
The National Hurricane Center in Miami said at 11 p.m. EDT Tuesday that a hurricane hunter plane found Michael's top sustained winds have increased to near 125 mph (205 kph) with higher gusts.
While Michael is now a strong Category 3 major hurricane, forecasters say, it's still strengthening and is expected to become a Category 4 hurricane before it makes landfall Wednesday.
At 11 p.m. EDT, the eye of Michael was about 220 miles (355 kilometers) south-southwest of Panama City, Florida. It also was about 200 miles (325 kilometers) south-southwest of Apalachicola, Florida.
The National Hurricane Center in Miami says Michael will push life-threatening storm surge onto parts of the Gulf Coast during the day Wednesday, bringing with it dangerous winds and heavy rains.
Though the storm is expected to weaken once it heads inland over the U.S. Southeast, tropical storm watches and warnings are in place along a stretch of the Atlantic seaboard in a region from northeast Florida to North Carolina. TRACK THE STORM: OrlandoHurricane.com
Weakening is expected after landfall as Michael moves through the southeastern United States.
Hurricane Michael, swiftly moving north through the Gulf of Mexico, is growing more dangerous as it is set to bring “devastation” Wednesday to parts of the Florida Panhandle and Big Bend region, Gov. Rick Scott said Tuesday morning.
Scott, after getting a briefing at the State Emergency Operations Center, urged people who plan to evacuate to do so Tuesday morning, as he continued to expand the activation of the Florida National Guard in advance of Michael’s landfall.
Tolls have been lifted in Northwest Florida to ease evacuation, and Scott said fuel distribution is being watched, though there haven’t been “widespread fuel shortages or outages.” Motorists were lined up before 7 a.m. Tuesday at gas stations across Tallahassee.
Scott said his main concern from the rapidly developing hurricane is storm surge, which the National Weather Service estimates could reach eight to 12 feet between Indian Pass in Gulf County and Cedar Key in Levy County and top six feet from Crystal River in Citrus County to the Okaloosa-Walton County Line.
“Hurricane Michael is a massive storm that could bring total devastation to parts of our state, especially in the Panhandle,” Scott said. “Think about destruction we’ve seen before with storms like Hurricane Irma. Hurricane Michael poses a deadly threat.”
A hurricane warning is in effect from the Alabama-Florida state line east to the Suwannee River.
Scott, who on Monday ordered the closure of state offices in 35 counties, has activated 2,000 members of the Florida National Guard.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has 120 wildlife officers ready for search-and-rescue operations. The Florida Highway Patrol has 350 troopers working 12-hour shifts.
A major concern also is restoring electricity after what is expected to be widespread power outages. Duke Energy has 5,000 workers ready to deploy, and Gulf Power has 3,000 personnel on standby.
Unlike with the powerful and deadly Hurricane Irma last year that ran up the state, Scott has left evacuation orders to county officials.
“I’ve been talking to mayors, to county commissioners, I think people are taking this serious,” Scott said. “This thing came up fast and it wasn’t like Irma where we had quite a bit of time to prepare.”
State Emergency Management Director Wes Maul, in talking to his staff a few minutes after Scott’s news conference, expressed concern that county shelters have had to quickly set up because Michael formed in a short period of time over the weekend.
Scott said the state is working with the American Red Cross and National Guard to assist counties with shelter needs.
Floridians in counties where election offices closed Tuesday for Hurricane Michael will be able to register to vote the day those offices reopen.
Secretary of State Ken Detzner announced an extension Tuesday morning that will allow county supervisors to accept paper voter-registration applications when they reopen from the storm. Tuesday is the deadline to register to vote, and that deadline continues to apply to people who register online.
Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo sent a letter to Gov. Scott late Monday asking for the extension, noting 35 counties are in a state of emergency.
“While 11 counties have already issued evacuation orders, it is expected that even more local governments in the area of the emergency declaration will consider closing offices and issuing evacuation orders on Tuesday in anticipation of the hurricane’s landfall, also affecting the ability of these individuals to register,” Rizzo said in a statement.
There are a number of watches and warnings currently in effect.
STORM SURGE WARNING
- Okaloosa/Walton County Line Florida to Anclote River Florida
STORM SURGE WATCH
- Anclote River Florida to Anna Maria Island Florida, including Tampa Bay
- Alabama/Florida border to Okaloosa/Walton County Line Florida
- Alabama/Florida border to Suwannee River Florida
TROPICAL STORM WARNING
- Alabama/Florida border to the Mississippi/Alabama border
- Suwanee River Florida to Chassahowitzka Florida
TROPICAL STORM WATCH
- Chassahowitzka to Anna Maria Island Florida, including Tampa Bay
- Mississippi/Alabama border to the Mouth of the Pearl River
- Fernandina Beach, Florida to South Santee River, South Carolina
Florida Highway Patrol says they are sending 35 troopers from Orlando to head to the Panhandle to help Floridians in the wake of Hurricane Michael.
The Orlando Utilities Commission (OUC) is also sending 21 employees and 17 trucks on a mutual aid mission to Tallahassee on Tuesday in preparation for Hurricane Michael's arrival.
The Rosen Hotels and Resorts are opening the doors of its nine local hotels for those affected by Hurricane Michael. Evacuees can book a room wth a special distress rate. Pets are welcomed. For more information, visit HERE.
The NHC says that the combination of a dangerous storm surge and the tide will cause normally dry areas near the coast to be flooded by rising waters moving inland from the shoreline. The water has the potential to reach the following heights above ground if peak surge occurs at the time of high tide.
Swells generated by Michael are already affecting the south coast of Cuba and the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. The NHC says that swells are expected to begin affecting the coast of the eastern and northern Gulf of Mexico during the next day or so. These swells are likely to cause life-threatening surf and rip current conditions.
The NHC also believes that Michael will produce inches of rainfall for several areas. Western Cuba is forecasted to get 4 to 8 inches, with maximum amounts near 12 inches. This can cause life-threatening flash floods and mudslides. The Florida Panhandle and Big Bend, southeast Alabama, and southern Georgia is forecasted to also get 4 to 8 inches, with maximum amounts near 12 inches. This can cause life-threatening flash floods. Eastern Georgia, the Carolinas, and southern Virginia is forecasted to get 3 to 6 inches. This could lead to life-threatening flash floods. The Florida Peninsula, eastern Mid-Atlantic, and the southern New England coast is forecast to get 1 to 3 inches.
Tornadoes are also a threat, says the NHC. The threat for them will increase on Tuesday night into Wednesday over parts of the Florida Panhandle, the northern Florida Peninsula, and southern Georgia.