Florida’s Panhandle scrambled to ready for its worst hurricane strike in at least a decade as Michael gained power overnight, on track to strike somewhere near Panama City Wednesday afternoon — possibly as a dangerous Category 4 system packing a thundering surge of seawater that could float cars and crest rooftops.
More than 180,000 people were under evacuation orders along a stretch of the Panhandle better known for its small town feel and big white sand beaches.
After forming quickly into a hurricane Monday, Michael made steady progress across the Gulf of Mexico Tuesday, gathering strength and plowing up the sea in its path. Water levels had already risen up to 2 feet above normal along the Gulf Coast, hurricane forecasters said, with heavy surf pounding some beaches and minor flooding near Apalachicola. At 11 p.m. Tuesday, the National Hurricane Center reported Michael’s sustained winds had reached 125 mph and forecasters predicted it will whip up even stronger before making landfall.
On Panama City Beach, normally a buzzing tourist hub, the streets were mostly deserted Tuesday night. The approaching storm didn’t keep last-minute visitors from heading to the sand to enjoy a stunning plum-colored sunset over the Gulf.
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“That’s exactly what we came for,” said Maria Rivera, 33, giving her 11-year-old son Kaden a squeeze.
Rivera, her son and her boyfriend are staying in their two-story waterfront house in an evacuation zone in the city fortified with hurricane-impact windows and stocked with snacks, water and board games.
“I’m kind of scared but I know I’m going to be safe because I’m with my mom,” Kaden said.
Hurricane and storm surge warnings and watches covered much of the Gulf Coast, as far south as Tampa. Parts of the U.S. East Coast also came under tropical storm warnings after heavy wind and rain threats worsened inland. Parts of the Carolinas still digging out from Florence’s slow-moving attack last month could again face heavy rain.
Forecasters and emergency managers warned that Michael’s storm surge remains the most serious coastal threat, since the bend in the shoreline traps powerful waves. Water levels were 1.5 to 2 feet above normal along parts of the coast Tuesday with the storm more than 300 miles away, National Hurricane Center storm surge chief Jamie Rhome said. Michael could also near the coast on a rising tide, which could compound problems.
Conditions could also be made worse by the many bays, coves and rivers that carve up the coast and can easily channel water farther inland, said hurricane center director Ken Graham. Areas like St. Marks, Panacea and Ochlockonee Bay, tiny communities surrounded by a wilderness of water, swamp and pine sandhills, are particularly vulnerable, he said.
“The water actually goes right over these barrier islands and starts to go into the bays and inland,” he said. “It could push inland 10 to 15 miles up rivers.”
The highest surge could reach 13 feet, near Mexico Beach. But invading waters could also hammer much of the coast, including Cedar Key, where a no-name hurricane in 1896 pushed ashore a fatal 10-foot storm surge that killed 100. The amount and location all depend on the storm’s track and could shift as the storm approaches during the day.
In repeated briefings throughout Tuesday, Gov. Rick Scott continued to urge residents in the storm’s path to heed evacuation orders and warnings about the dangerous surge.
“The state has experienced winds before like this and rain like this. The storm surge could be historic,” he said.
In Tallahassee, 20 miles from the coast, lines formed at gas stations where many had run out of fuel, including a Quick ‘N’ Save, where shelves had been stripped of bottled water and ice emptied from coolers.
Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, Florida’s Democratic nominee for governor, helped people fill sandbags.
As Michael plows across the open Gulf, wave heights could reach 40 feet, the U.S. Geological Survey said. Given the slope of the beach and dune height, USGS researchers said storm surge could be higher than hurricane forecasters projected, reaching 16 to 20 feet above normal between Cape San Blas and St. George, two barrier islands better known for unspoiled sugar-sand beaches and strict building heights.
“The shallow sea bed will reduce that wave height somewhat,” near the coast, Kara Dorn, an oceanographer and head of USGS’ Coastal Change Hazards Storm Team, said in a statement. “But water levels in some parts of the eastern Florida Panhandle coast will still be high enough to overwhelm the dunes, which are relatively low and narrow.”
Michael could be the strongest storm to strike the area since Hurricane Ivan in 2004, which made landfall near Pensacola as a Cat 3 and caused more than $20 billion in damage in Florida and other states. A decade earlier, Opal, another October hurricane, roared ashore near Pensacola with a 15-foot storm surge that destroyed a mile of U.S. Highway 98.
In advance of the storm on Monday, emergency managers ordered mandatory evacuations along the coast expected to see the fiercest winds and highest surge, including Wakulla, Franklin, Gulf and Bay counties. Voluntary evacuations were issued for Santa Rosa, Hernando, Leon and Liberty counties.
But the state’s emergency manager, Wes Maul, worried that residents who comply may be greeted by unprepared local officials. In Wakulla, no shelters were open because none are rated safe enough for a Cat 3 storm.
“Most do not intend to begin their life safety operations until after lunch [Tuesday], leaving precious few hours for families to prepare,” Maul wrote to state legislators, county officials and mayors Monday. If they “did not get their mission and commodity requests in [by Monday night], it is unlikely that we can fulfill those requests before the onset of the storm.”
Maul repeated his warning Tuesday about shelters coming online at the last minute.
“If you guys weren’t consistently being relentless in your urgency and in the messaging of how severe this actually is, it’s questionable what kind of operation we’d be seeing statewide right now,” he told fellow state workers at briefing Tuesday night. “You’ve been expected to do things for folks that are not doing it for themselves.”
In Cuba, Michael dumped six to 12 inches of rain fell during a 24-hour period after brushing past the island’s west end. Gauges recorded 13.5 inches in La Palma, a town on the province’s north coast. Downed trees also knocked out power in the westernmost province, where more than 300 people were evacuated from flood-prone areas, according to state media.
On Tuesday, Scott expanded a state of emergency to 35 counties, ordered 2,500 National Guard members to duty and lifted tolls. Health officials were checking on facilities that care for the elderly, which were ordered to install generators and file evacuation plans after a dozen patients died in stifling heat in a Hollywood facility that lost power following Hurricane Irma.
“My expectation is if you are a healthcare facility, you have a responsibility to take care of those patients,” Scott told reporters at a morning briefing. “My expectation is people comply.”
Ambulance strike teams will also be on standby, Scott said, along with wildlife officers with high-water rescue vehicles and about 450 additional Florida Highway Patrol officers to handle deteriorating road conditions, including bridge closings.
Scott also said state officials were in contact with local shelter officials to avoid problems caused during Irma when a shortage of workers left many unstaffed. After more than 650,000 residents were ordered out of their homes before Irma, Miami-Dade raced to find staff, leaving some people stranded.
“We’re going through county by county to make sure we have all the shelters we need,” he said.
State offices in counties under evacuation orders were also closed Tuesday, the same day voter registration closes. Secretary of State Ken Detzner said those counties affected would be given an extra day when they reopen to resume registration.
The state’s tourism agency has also teamed up with Expedia.com to find hotel rooms for evacuees, Scott said.
Despite the repeated warnings, some residents said they would not evacuate.
“I just can’t bring myself to spend that much money,” Aja Kemp, 36, who lives in a mobile home in Crawfordville, told The Associated Press. When her family fled Irma, they spent more than $800, she said. So after working the night shift stocking shelves at a big box store, she spent Tuesday securing her yard.
“We’ve got supplies to last us a week,” she said. “Plenty of water. I made sure we’ve got clean clothes. We got everything tied down.”
Staff writer Mimi Whitefield contributed to this report.