(Reuters) – Hurricane Michael strengthened to a Category 2 storm on Tuesday as it moved toward the Florida Panhandle, where residents were ordered to get out of harm’s way ahead of life-threatening waves, winds and rains.
Alexander Charnicharo fishes at the seafront in Havana as Hurricane Michael passes by western Cuba on October 8, 2018. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini
Tens of thousands of people were told to evacuate the coastal areas in nine counties as the storm approached with winds of 100 miles per hour (155 km per hour). Michael could grow to a Category 3 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale before it makes landfall on Wednesday, potentially the most powerful storm to strike the Panhandle in at least a decade.
Florida Governor Rick Scott told ABC’s “Good Morning America” program on Tuesday that the effects of the storm would not be felt for another 12 hours and warned of the potential deadly impact of what could be a 12-foot (3.7-meter) coastal storm surge.
Asked if there would be more evacuation orders, he said officials were monitoring the situation but that people in potentially affected areas should not take any chances against such a large storm surge.
“No one’s going to survive,” such a wall of water, Scott said. “Don’t take a chance.”
The storm was forecast to make landfall along a 150-mile (240-km) stretch of the Florida coast with Panama City at the center, according to Refinitiv Eikon data. Residents along more than 300 miles of coastline, from the Alabama/Florida border to the Suwannee River in Florida, have been told to brace for hurricane conditions, forecasters said.
As much as 1 foot (30 cm) of rain is also forecast across Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, the NHC reported.
It warned that both could trigger deadly flooding, adding that residents within the hurricane warning zone should also “prepare for life-threatening winds.”
Scott declared a state of emergency in 35 counties along the Panhandle and Florida’s Big Bend regions. About 1,250 National Guard soldiers were assisting and more than 4,000 troops were placed on standby.
“We haven’t seen anything like this in the Panhandle for decades,” Scott told ABC, adding that water could come miles inland.
State offices, schools and universities were closed through the end of the week in Panhandle counties. Lines at gasoline stations grew as people left. Those who stayed emptied grocery store shelves of water and other supplies.
In neighboring Alabama, Governor Kay Ivey declared an emergency for the entire state on Monday, anticipating wind damage, heavy rains and power outages.
Hurricane Michael would be the first major hurricane to hit the Panhandle since Hurricane Dennis in 2005, which made landfall near Pensacola, according to hurricane center data.
Torrential downpours and flash flooding over the weekend caused 13 deaths in Central America after Michael formed off the coast of northern Honduras.
After striking Florida, Michael is forecast to move up the East Coast on Wednesday and Thursday through the Carolinas, which are still recovering from Hurricane Florence.
Energy companies halted nearly one-fifth of Gulf of Mexico oil production and evacuated personnel from 10 platforms on Monday.
The Gulf of Mexico produces 17 percent of daily U.S. crude oil output and 5 percent of daily natural gas output, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey in Washington and Gina Cherelus in New York; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Jeffrey Benkoe