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Hurricane Michael strengthened to a Category 4 storm early Wednesday as it barreled toward Florida’s northern Gulf Coast, threatening catastrophic storm surge, torrential rain and heavy winds.
“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 Wednesday morning and make landfall in the Panhandle by the afternoon, according to the National Weather Service.
The National Hurricane Center said in a 2 a.m. advisory that Michael’s top sustained winds had risen to 130 mph and that some additional strengthening is expected before Michael wallops the Panhandle with “life-threatening” storm surge, heavy rainfall and likely tornadoes.”
Hurricane-force winds will extend 45 miles from the center of the storm, the center said. The hurricane center called Michael “extremely dangerous.”
“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.
“Everything needs to be complete today,” National Hurricane Center Director Ken Graham said in a briefing posted to Facebook Tuesday evening. “You need to be in your safe place, because this thing is on the way. It’s a very dangerous situation.”
Some people in and outside of mandatory evacuation zones in Florida said they planned to stay and ride out the storm. Teri Vega, 53, her husband and her 12-year-old daughter said they will stay in Panama City Beach despite the order.
“We have a fairly new house,” Vega said. “It was built really well. We put the hurricane shutters up. We have tubs of water in each of the bathrooms so that we can still flush. We have a generator. We have a gas grill. Tons of canned food, water, Gatorade.”
Vega said she was in St. Martin for a stronger category hurricane in 1995, and “a [category] three doesn’t scare me as much because I feel much more prepared than I was for that.”
Missy Theiss, 54, of Panama City, said she lives just outside a mandatory evacuation zone, and planned to stay because they have five animals — two cats and two small dogs, as well as her son’s pit bull.
“Nobody is going to let a pit bull into a shelter,” Thiess said in a phone interview. “We’ve got five animals here. I’m not leaving them. Point blank. I’m not leaving them.” Thiess said the family is prepared with water, food and a generator.
On Monday, Scott requested that President Donald Trump declare a pre-landfall emergency for the state, and declared a state of emergency in 35 counties. Trump signed the state of emergency on Tuesday.
Government offices will close in those counties, and while Tuesday was the deadline for Floridians to register to vote, residents will be allowed to register on the day those offices reopen, according to a statement from the secretary of state. The Florida Democratic Party filed a lawsuit Tuesday saying that the one-day extension was insufficient and confusing.
By Friday, the Florida Panhandle and Big Bend, southeast Alabama and southern Georgia could all see 4 to 8 inches of rain, with some areas getting a foot, the NWS said.
Areas with a combined population of more than 3.7 million were under hurricane warnings, and areas with a population of more than 8.4 million were under tropical storm warnings Tuesday afternoon, according to the National Weather Service.
Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport on the Florida Gulf Coast, Tallahassee International Airport, Pensacola International Airport and Panama City Airport said they would either close Wednesday or commercial flights would be canceled or suspended.
Eastern Georgia, the Carolinas and southern Virginia should expect 3 to 6 inches of rain through Friday, and Western Cuba should expect an additional 1 to 2 inches, the NWS said.
The Carolinas are only beginning to recover from Hurricane Florence, which left dozens dead and a trail of devastation last month.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper on Tuesday warned that while Hurricane Michael is not expected to be as devastating as Florence, it could bring tropical-storm-force winds and between 2 to 5 inches of rain in some parts. The wind will be strong enough to rip tarps off homes damaged in Florence, he said. Most of the at least 49 deaths blamed on Florence or its aftermath occurred in North Carolina.
“I know people are fatigued from Florence. But don’t let this storm catch you with your guard down,” Cooper said.