Hurricane Michael strengthened to a Category 3 storm Tuesday as it barreled toward Florida’s northeast Gulf Coast, threatening catastrophic storm surge, torrential rain and heavy winds.
By the time the storm makes landfall, it could be near Category 4 strength, forecasters said.
“Hurricane Michael is forecast to be the most destructive storm to hit the Florida Panhandle in decades,” Gov. Rick Scott warned on Tuesday.
The storm is expected to move across the eastern Gulf of Mexico through Tuesday and make landfall in the Panhandle on Wednesday afternoon, according to the National Weather Service.
On Tuesday afternoon, Michael’s top sustained winds had risen to 120 mph, and the National Hurricane Center said some additional strengthening is expected before Michael wallops the Panhandle with “life-threatening” storm surge, heavy rainfall and likely tornadoes.”
“Michael is forecast to be near category 4 strength when it makes landfall in the Florida Panhandle or the Florida Big Bend area,” the hurricane center said in an 8 p.m. advisory. The storm was getting more organized at it approaches, and hurricane-force winds will extend 45 miles from the center of the storm, the center said.
The hurricane center called Michael a “major hurricane.”
“Some hurricane force winds are going to go well-inland, said FEMA official Jeff Byard, adding that Florida’s power structure will likely take a greater hit than the Carolinas did during Hurricane Florence.
Scott on Tuesday morning urged residents in the path of the storm to evacuate, saying the effects of the storm would start well before landfall.
“Hurricane Michael is a monstrous storm. The forecast keeps getting more dangerous,” he said.
Scott said he was most worried about the forecasted “absolutely deadly” 8 to 12 feet of storm surge expected, even in noncoastal areas.
“Water will come miles inshore and could easily be over the roofs of houses,” Scott said.
“You cannot hide from storm surge so get prepared and get out if an evacuation is ordered,” he said. “Remember, we can rebuild your house, but we cannot rebuild your life.”
He said 2,500 National Guardsmen are prepared to assist.
Because tropical storm- and hurricane-force winds, as well as other effects, extend far from the center of the storm, time is running out to prepare, forecasters warned.
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SOURCE: NBC News, Elisha Fieldstadt, Stephan Kozub and Phil Helsel