Hurricane Michael threatens the Panhandle, Gulf Coast

The storm is projected to push north through the Caribbean to make landfall in Florida mid-week.

Hurricane Michael is churning off the Yucatan, with forecasts calling for it to continue heading north before landing in Florida this week. [Associated Press photo]
Hurricane Michael is churning off the Yucatan, with forecasts calling for it to continue heading north before landing in Florida this week. [Associated Press photo]

This article was updated at 5 p.m. on Oct. 8, 2018.

Hurricane Michael, a rapidly developing storm coming out of Central America, is looking more likely to pose a serious threat to the Florida Panhandle, forecasters say.

The system could be "a dangerous, major hurricane" along the northeastern Gulf Coast on Wednesday, according to the National Hurricane Center. Michael became a hurricane early Monday, forecasters said, crossing a critical threshold as it churned 50 miles south of the western tip of Cuba.

"Yesterday at this time it was still a tropical depression and now it’s a hurricane," said Phil Klotzbach, a hurricane researcher at Colorado State University. "And they’re forecasting a major hurricane by this time tomorrow."

As of 5 p.m. Monday, the storm was located about 50 miles south of the western tip of Cuba and moving north at 9 mph, toward the Gulf Coast, according to the National Hurricane Center.

Michael had maximum sustained winds of 80 mph at 5 p.m. A Hurricane Warning was issued for the Alabama-Florida border eastward to the Suwannee River. A Tropical Storm Watch covered the area from Suwannee River to Anna Maria Island, including Tampa Bay. The Hurricane Center also issued a Storm Surge Watch from Navarre, in the Panhandle, to Anna Maria Island.

The Storm Surge Watch means areas may experience "life-threatening" flooding from rising water moving inland from the coastline during the next 48 hours, according to the Hurricane Center.

In a news conference Sunday evening in Tallahassee, Florida Gov. Rick Scott warned that the storm could have far-reaching effects, regardless of where it lands.

"If this storm hits Panama City, Tampa could still have storm surge," Scott said.

The governor warned that there is potential for "devastating impact to communities across the Panhandle and Big Bend."

Scot said Sunday that the storm will be slow, strong and will bring a dangerous storm surge. "This storm will be life-threatening and extremely dangerous," he said in briefing Sunday evening.

Scott added that he was activating 500 National Guard members ahead of the storm for planning, logistics and response.

He said the storm is forecast to have similar impacts to Hurricane Hermine, which littered debris and knocked out power for days in Tallahassee and the surrounding area just two years ago.

“Remember this storm could grow stronger and be a Category 3 hitting our state,” Scott said, noting that winds could pick up to more than 100 mph by midweek.

Scott had already announced Sunday morning he would declare a state of emergency for 26 counties in the Florida Panhandle and Big Bend due to the storm. All local airport, school and government closures will be handled locally. He also called on local governments to do proper checks of generators, shelter plans and supply stocks.

"With the National Hurricane Center forecasting Tropical Depression 14 to strengthen and impact Florida’s Panhandle as a hurricane, families need to get prepared," the governor said in a release. The governor was set to meet with emergency officials Sunday evening in Tallahassee.

Parts of the Yucatan Peninsula and Cuba will undergo heavy rainfall and flash flooding Monday and Tuesday, forecasters predict.

Then, wind shears will become weaker and Michael will become stronger.

The National Hurricane Center’s model expects Michael to become a hurricane early Tuesday morning.

Though forecasters expect the hurricane to hit the Panhandle, the storm may "affect portions of the Florida Gulf Coast that are especially vulnerable to storm surge, regardless of the storm’s exact track or intensity," the governor said in his press release.

Warnings were already in effect for the Mexican coast from Tulum to Cabo Catoche, as well as Pinar Del Rio and the Isle of Youth in Cuba.

The outer bands of the storm are expected to dump 2 to 4 inches of rain in the Florida Keys, the Yucatan Peninsula, Belize and Northern Honduras. Parts of western Cuba could see up to 12 inches of rain, according to the National Weather Service.

The storm could also bring lethal flash floods to Chiapas, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, western Nicaragua and other parts of the Mexican and Central American Pacific coasts.

This article was originally published at 12:30 a.m. on Oct. 8, 2018. It contains information originally published in the Tampa Bay Times.

This article was written by one or more Florida Beach Insider staff members.