Hurricane Michael now a Category 3 storm
Florida's Panhandle braces for a ‘monstrous’ hit sometime on Wednesday. Gulf Coast communities are already feeling the effects.
This article was updated at 6 p.m. on Oct. 9, 2018.
MIAMI — A rapidly strengthening Hurricane Michael hit Category 3 late Tuesday, stoking fears the major hurricane would deal a devastating blow to Florida’s Panhandle when it lands sometime Wednesday.
Frantic coastal dwellers were boarding up homes and seeking evacuation routes. An estimated 120,000 people along the Florida Panhandle were ordered to clear out as Michael rapidly picked up steam in the Gulf of Mexico and closed in with winds of 110 mph and a potential storm surge of 12 feet.
It is expected to blow ashore around midday Wednesday in either the Panhandle or the Big Bend area, where authorities warned of a potentially devastating storm surge.
The speed of the storm — Michael was moving north 12 mph (19 kph) — gave many people a dwindling number of hours to prepare or flee before being caught up in damaging wind and rain.
"Guess what? That’s today," National Hurricane Center Director Ken Graham said. "If they tell you to leave, you have to leave."
By Tuesday at 4 p.m., Michael’s top sustained winds had risen to near 120 mph, with hurricane-force winds extending outward up to 45 miles, and it was moving north at 12 mph.
Most of the Tampa Bay area remains under a Tropical Storm Watch and Storm Surge Watch. Areas from the Anclote River to the north are under a Storm Surge Warning.
The threat of rising water prompted Pasco County emergency officials to recommend voluntary evacuations for residents west of U.S. 19 who are vulnerable to potential storm surge, as well as special needs residents and anyone in low-lying areas.
Anyone needing shelter can evacuate to the Fasano Regional Hurricane Shelter, 11611 Denton Ave. in Hudson. For information, call 727-847-2411.
The region can expect winds to pick up from the south throughout Tuesday, but the real change will begin to occur Tuesday night. That’s when dark clouds will begin to roll in, spreading an increased chance of rain throughout the area, according to Tony Hurt, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Ruskin.
Hurt said the majority of the impact across Tampa Bay will be felt Wednesday. Residents can expect gusty winds, thunderstorms, locally heavy flooding and possible isolated tornadoes for most of the day.
"The winds could be an issue, because they could be hitting 35 to 45 mph," Hurt said. "There is a threat of isolated tornadoes. Right now it doesn’t look like too great a threat, but it is there."
For coastal residents in the Tampa Bay area, the storm surge is likely to be 2 to 4 feet above normal for a high tide, he said, so they should be prepared for that.
But the rainfall and flooding are likely to be no worse than a heavy summer thunderstorm, he said. Places that flood regularly, such as the Shore Acres subdivision in St. Petersburg, are likely to flood again.
Far bigger impacts are headed for the North Florida areas in Michael’s crosshairs.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott on Tuesday called Michael a "monstrous hurricane" with a devastating potential from high winds, storm surge and heavy rains. He declared a state of emergency for 35 Florida counties from the Panhandle to Tampa Bay, activated hundreds of Florida National Guard members and waived tolls to encourage those near the coast to evacuate inland.
Scott called the storm "the most destructive storm to hit the Panhandle in decades." He said winds in excess of 110 mph and storm surges of 8-12 feet are expected in the Big Bend and Panhandle areas once Michael makes landfall. Winds exceeding 75 mph are expected to stretch across through Pensacola.
"You cannot hide from storm surge," Scott warned.
Forecasters said parts of Florida’s marshy, lightly populated Big Bend area — the crook of Florida’s elbow — could see up to 12 feet (3.7 meters) of storm surge.
Michael also could dump up to a foot (30 centimeters) of rain over some Panhandle communities before it sweeps through the Southeast and goes out to sea over the next few days.
Michael seemed to spin up into a powerful hurricane very quickly because it grew out of a weather system known as a Central American Gyre, said Dennis Feltgen of the National Hurricane Center. The Gyre begins as a large, spinning area of low pressure that spawns several storms.
At the start of hurricane season in June, hurricanes grow out of tropical depressions in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, he explained. Then as summer goes on, they begin spinning off the coast of Africa and give Florida plenty of notice before arriving on our coast. That shuts off by the end of September, and the hurricanes of October usually arise from the narrow isthmus of Central America, he explained.
The Central American Gyre has been known to spin off storms that went into both the gulf and the Pacific, he said. The ones that emerge into the gulf usually head straight north and slam into Florida, because "it’s in the way," he said.
As a result, "October is one of Florida’s active (hurricane) months," he said. Hurricane Wilma in 2005 was spawned the same way.
This is the second catastrophic hurricane to head Florida’s way in the past two years. During Hurricane Irma last year, 14 people died when a South Florida nursing home lost power and air conditioning.
Scott warned caregivers at north Florida hospitals and nursing homes to do all possible to assure the safety of the elderly and infirm.
"If you’re responsible for a patient, you’re responsible for the patient. Take care of them," he said.
His Democratic opponent in Florida’s Senate race, Sen. Bill Nelson, said a "wall of water" could cause major destruction along the Panhandle.
"Don’t think that you can ride this out if you’re in a low-lying area," Nelson said on CNN.
States other than Florida are keeping an eye on Michael, too. Forecasters said it could bring 3 to 6 inches of rain to Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia, triggering flash flooding in a corner of the country still recovering from Hurricane Florence.
"I know people are fatigued from Florence, but don’t let this storm catch you with your guard down," North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said, adding, "A number of homes have rooftop tarps that could be damaged or blown away with this wind."
While Florence took five days between the time it turned into a hurricane and the moment it blew ashore in the Carolinas, Michael gave Florida what could amount to just two days’ notice. It developed into a hurricane Monday.
In the Florida Panhandle, Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan bluntly advised residents who choose to ride out the storm that first responders won’t be able to reach them during or immediately after Michael smashes into the coast.
"If you decide to stay in your home and a tree falls on your house or the storm surge catches you and you’re now calling for help, there’s no one that can respond to help you," Morgan said at a news conference.
In the Panhandle city of Apalachicola — long the capital of the state’s oyster industry — Mayor Van Johnson Sr. said the 2,300 residents are frantically preparing for a major hurricane strike that could be unlike any seen there in decades. Many filled sandbags and boarded up homes. Residents also lined up to buy gas and groceries even as evacuations — both voluntary and mandatory — were expected to pick up the pace Tuesday.
"We’re looking at a significant storm with significant impact, possibly greater than I’ve seen in my 59 years of life," Johnson said.
The state emergency website listed mandatory evacuation orders for coastal or low-lying areas of nine counties: Bay, Dixie, Franklin, Gulf, Jackson, Levy, Okaloosa, Wakulla and Walton. The state has issued voluntary evacuation orders for parts of Calhoun, Citrus, Gadsden, Hernando, Jefferson, Leon, Liberty, Pasco, Santa Rosa and Taylor counties.
Some officials worry residents might not take evacuation orders seriously enough. Pamela Brownell, the county emergency management director for Franklin County, said she knows they won’t leave.
"We already know there’s people that are going to stay," she said Tuesday. "That’s not a good idea."
The area includes St. George Island and Dog Island, small strips of land offshore that are expected to be inundated by surge.
"This water’s good to roll right over us and not even stop," Brownell said. "This place is flat."
About 80 percent of the county is state forest land, though, she said, leaving residents with little recourse.
"Everyone lives along the coast," Brownell said. "They have no choice."
In a Facebook post Monday, the Wakulla County Sheriff’s Office said no shelters would be open because Wakulla County shelters were rated safe only for hurricanes with top sustained winds below 111 mph (178 kph). With Michael’s winds projected to be even stronger than that, Wakulla County residents were urged to evacuate inland.
Neighbors in Alabama — the entire state is under an emergency declaration — also were bracing. Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said she feared widespread power outages and other problems would follow. Forecasters also warned spinoff tornadoes would also be a threat.
With the storm next entering the eastern part of the Gulf of Mexico, which has warm water and favorable atmospheric conditions, "there is a real possibility that Michael will strengthen to a major hurricane before landfall," Robbie Berg, a hurricane specialist at the Miami-based storm forecasting hub, wrote in an advisory.
A large mound of sand in Tallahassee was whittled down to a small pile within hours Monday as residents filled sandbags against potential flooding.
Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, Florida’s Democratic nominee for governor, filled sandbags with residents and urged residents of the state capital city to finish up emergency preparations quickly. Local authorities fear power outages and major tree damage from Michael.
"Today it is about life and safety," Gillum said. "There’s nothing between us and this storm but warm water and I think that’s what terrifies us about the potential impacts."
This article was originally published on Oct. 9, 2018. Staff writers Devin Rodriguez and Daniel Figueroa IV, Zachary T. Sampson, Steve Bousquet, Elizabeth Koh and Samantha J. Gross contributed to this report.