TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (Reuters) – “Monstrous” Hurricane Michael bore down on northwestern Florida on Tuesday and was expected to strengthen into a powerful Category 3 storm before hitting land on Wednesday, triggering dangerous coastal flooding and bringing high winds and torrential rains.
Authorities told tens of thousands of residents and tourists in at least 20 Florida counties to evacuate coastal areas along the 200-mile (322 km) long Panhandle and Big Bend region. The storm was expected to hit land around midday Wednesday, said National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecaster Kenneth Widelski.
Michael, carrying top winds of 110 miles per hour (175 km per hour), caused major disruption to U.S. oil production as it headed north over the Gulf of Mexico.
It was expected to strengthen into a Category 3 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale before hitting land, said the National Hurricane Center, which classifies storms of Category 3 and above as major hurricanes. That would make it the most powerful storm to strike the Panhandle in more than a decade.
Authorities stressed the danger of the storm surge, when hurricanes push sea water high above their normal levels causing coastal flooding. Forecasters said Michael could cause a storm surge of up to 12 feet (3.7 meters) above normal sea water levels in Florida.
“Hurricane Michael is a monstrous storm and the forecast just keeps getting more dangerous, we are now just hours from seeing impacts,” Florida Governor Rick Scott said on Tuesday afternoon.
“If you don’t follow warnings from officials this storm could kill you,” said the Republican governor, who is campaigning for a U.S. Senate seat in the November congressional elections.
Producers in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday cut oil production by about 40 percent and natural gas output by 28 percent as Michael approached the coast, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement said, citing reports from 27 companies.
The Gulf 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. The partial shutdown ahead of Michael helped push oil prices slightly higher on Tuesday.
Scott declared a state of emergency in 35 counties in Florida’s Panhandle and Big Bend regions, mostly rural areas known for small tourist cities, beaches and wildlife reserves, and the state capital, Tallahassee.
The hurricane was forecast to deliver as much as 1 foot (30 cm) of rain in parts of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. Western Cuba was also forecast to get torrential rains.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency had numerous teams deployed and ready to respond, said FEMA spokesman Jeff Byard. About 2500 National Guard soldiers were assisting and more than 4,000 troops were on standby. Some 13,000 utility restoration workers were also on standby.
President Donald Trump told reporters at the White House the country was very well prepared for the hurricane, adding it was much bigger than had been expected.
‘BUTTONED UP, TIGHTENED DOWN’
In Panhandle counties, most state offices, schools and universities were closed for the rest of the week. Lines at gasoline stations grew as people left. Those who stayed emptied grocery store shelves of water and other supplies.
Gary Givens, owner of Gary’s Oyster Shack in Panama City, Florida, said he was closing his restaurant around lunchtime on Tuesday with the help of his crew ahead of the storm’s arrival. But Givens said he was staying put because he owns two businesses in the area.
“I just got a crew that came in that are staying also and they’re in here helping me get everything buttoned up, tightened down, getting the food secure,” Givens said.
Some Panama City residents were on the beach enjoying a cool breeze ahead of the storm, while others were loading up cars with luggage, and visitors were checking out of hotels.
The last major hurricane to hit the Panhandle was Hurricane Dennis in 2005, according to hurricane center data.
At 2 p.m. ET, Michael’s center was about 310 miles (500 km) south-southwest of Apalachicola, Florida, heading north at around 12 mph (19 kph), the NHC said.
On its current track, it would hit land somewhere along a coastline that includes the cities and towns of Fort Walton Beach, Panama City Beach, Port St. Joe, St. Teresa and the wildlife reserves bordering Apalachee Bay. However, forecasters always note it is not possible to say where a hurricane will land until it is closer to the coast.
A hurricane warning was in effect for the coastline from the Florida-Alabama border to the Suwannee River in Florida.
Torrential downpours and flash flooding from the storm over the weekend caused 13 deaths in Central America.
The storm was forecast to move through the southeastern United States on Wednesday night and Thursday, passing through Georgia and the Carolinas, which are still recovering from Hurricane Florence last month. It would head off the Mid-Atlantic coast by Friday, the NHC said.
Georgia Governor Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency on Tuesday for 92 counties in the state.
Reporting by Devika Krishna Kumar; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey and Roberta Rampton in Washington, Gina Cherelus and Barbara Goldberg in New York, Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee, Liz Hampton in Houston, Andrew Hay in New Mexico; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Frances Kerry