Hurricane Michael strengthens to a Category 3 storm as Florida declared a state of emergency for 35 counties from the Panhandle to Tampa Bay.

Hurricane Michael is seen in this National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite image in the Gulf of Mexico, October 9, 2018.
Hurricane Michael is seen in this National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite image in the Gulf of Mexico, October 9, 2018. (Reuters)

A fast and furious Hurricane Michael sped toward the Florida Panhandle on Tuesday with 110 mph winds and a potential storm surge of 12 feet, giving tens of thousands of people precious little time to get out or board up.

Fighter jets and crews evacuated Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida in preparation ahead of the hurricane, while grocery stores quickly ran out of provisions in Tallahassee and beaches were cleared in Pensacola.

Drawing energy from the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico with every passing hour, the storm was expected to blow ashore around midday Wednesday near Panama City Beach, along a lightly populated stretch of fishing villages and white-sand spring-break beaches.

While Florence took five days between the time it turned into a hurricane and the moment it rolled into the Carolinas, Michael gave Florida what amounted to two days' notice.

It developed into a hurricane on Monday, and by Tuesday, more than 140,000 people were under mandatory evacuation orders.

People scramble to pull their boats from the water prior to the arrival of Hurricane Michael in Saint Marks, Florida south of Tallahassee.
People scramble to pull their boats from the water prior to the arrival of Hurricane Michael in Saint Marks, Florida south of Tallahassee. (AFP)

Authorities warn of devastating strike

A hurricane hunter plane that bounced into the swirling eye of Michael off the west tip of Cuba late on Monday found wind speeds were rising even as forecasters warned the storm could reach major hurricane status with winds topping 179 kph by Tuesday night. 

TRT World 's Christine Pirovolakis reports. 

Michael was lashing western Cuba on Monday with heavy rains and strong winds.

Forecasters warned Michael could dump up to 30 centimetres of rain in western Cuba, potentially triggering flash floods and mudslides in mountain areas.

(TRTWorld)

Disaster agencies in El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua reported 13 deaths as roofs collapsed and residents were carried away by swollen rivers. Six people died in Honduras, four in Nicaragua and three in El Salvador. Authorities were also searching for a boy swept away by a river in Guatemala.

Most of the rain was blamed on a low-pressure system off the Pacific coast of El Salvador. Hurricane Michael in the Caribbean could have also contributed.

'Monstrous hurricane'

On 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.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott called Michael a "monstrous hurricane" with a devastating potential from high winds, storm surge and heavy rains. Scott 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.

He also warned caregivers at north Florida hospitals and nursing homes to do all possible to assure the safety of the elderly and infirm. 

Following Hurricane Irma last year, 14 people died when a South Florida nursing home lost power and air conditioning.

"If you're responsible for a patient, you're responsible for the patient. Take care of them," he said.

In the small Panhandle city of Apalachicola, 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 on 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 of the city, straddling the shore of Apalachicola Bay, a Gulf of Mexico inlet that reaps about 90 percent of Florida's oysters.

Evacuations

Mandatory evacuation orders were issued for residents of barrier islands, mobile homes and low-lying coastal areas in Gulf, Wakulla and Bay counties.

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.

"This storm has the potential to be a historic storm, please take heed," the sheriff's office said in the post.

High winds weren't the only danger. Parts of Florida's curvy Big Bend could see up to 3.7 metres (12 feet) of storm surge, while Michael also could dump up to 30 centimetres of rain over some Panhandle communities as it moves inland, forecasters said.

Situation in Alabama

Neighbours 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 favourable 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 on 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."

Source: AP