Category 4 Hurricane Michael charged toward the Florida panhandle with even more powerful 145 mph winds, threatening coastal fishing villages, resorts and coastal communities bracing for impact sometime late Wednesday.
The unexpected brute that quickly sprang from a weekend tropical depression grew swiftly, rising in days to a catastrophic storm. Around midday it was expected to become one of the north Florida’s worst hurricanes in memory with heavy rainfall expected along the northeastern Gulf Coast and life-threatening storm surge of up to 13 feet.
Florida officials said roughly 375,000 people up and down the Gulf Coast had been urged or ordered to evacuate. Evacuations spanned 22 counties from the Florida Panhandle into north central Florida. But fears lingered that some failed to heed the calls to get out of Michael's way as the hard-charging storm began speeding north over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Locally, Tampa Bay area residents are under a Tropical Storm Watch and Storm Surge Watch and can expect intermittent squalls of rain and wind with tides rising two- to four-feet from Manatee to Hernando counties. Tides may rise as high as seven feet above normal from Hernando northward. Area residents can expect 40 to 50 mph gusts at times.
Near Tampa Bay, storm surge along the coast remains the biggest concern, said Florida Public Radio Emergency Network meteorologist Cyndee O'Quinn. The risk of flooding grows as you creep up the western coast of Florida.
“Say even down to Anna Maria Island which includes Tampa Bay, we could see a storm surge of 2 to 4 feet,” O’Quinn said. “Now as you’re going north of there, up to around Cedar Key, that increases to around 4 to 6 feet. But really between Keaton Beach (in Taylor County) and Cedar Key, that’s when you see those storm surges of 6 to 9 feet.
At 7:30 a.m., The National Hurricane Center said Michael was moving north at 13 miles an hour and its eye was centered 145 miles south Panama City and 145 miles south of Apalachicola at 4 a.m. this morning. The storm’s barometric pressure had dropped to 943 millibars
Hurricane-force winds extend outward up to 45 miles (75 kilometers) from the center and tropical-storm-force winds extend outward up to 185 miles (281 kilometers).
The temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico caused the storm to quickly increase in intensity, O’Quinn said.
“With the water temperatures really as warm as they have been, it has sort of been like fueling the fire - it's like throwing gasoline on a fire - that warm water temperature takes all the energy from the warmer waters,” O’Quinn said. “The warmer the water, the more energy it gets. That's what we've been seeing."
Worried meteorologists said it had the potential of becoming one of the worst storms in the history of Florida's Panhandle.
"I guess it's the worst case scenario. I don't think anyone would have experienced this in the Panhandle," meteorologist Ryan Maue of weathermodels.com told The Associated Press. "This is going to have structure damaging winds along the coast and hurricane force winds inland."
University of Georgia's Marshall Shepherd, a former president of the American Meteorological Society, called it a "life-altering event" on Facebook and said he watched the storm's growth on satellite images with a pit growing in his stomach.
Franklin County Sheriff A.J. Smith near the vulnerable coast said his deputies had gone door to door in some places urging people to evacuate. "We have done everything we can as far as getting the word out," Smith said. "Hopefully more people will leave."
The following watches and warnings are effect in the region:
- A Storm Surge Warning is in effect for
- Okaloosa/Walton County Line Florida to Anclote River Florida
- A Storm Surge Watch is in effect for Anclote River Florida to Anna Maria Island Florida, including Tampa Bay
- A Hurricane Warning is in effect for Alabama/Florida border to Suwannee River Florida
- A Tropical Storm Warning is in effect for Alabama/Florida border to the Mississippi/Alabama border, Suwanee River Florida to Chassahowitzka Florida, and North of Fernandina Beach Florida to Surf City North Carolina
- A Tropical Storm Watch is in effect for Chassahowitzka to Anna Maria Island Florida, including Tampa Bay, Mississippi/Alabama border to the Mouth of the Pearl River, Surf City North Carolina to Duck North Carolina, and Pamlico and Albemarle Sounds
On the exposed coast of Florida's Big Bend, most of the waterfront homes in Keaton Beach stood vacant amid fears of a life-threatening storm surge in an area that hadn't seen a potentially catastrophic major hurricane in decades. Even so, 77-year-old resident Robert Sadousky wasn't quite ready to evacuate yet.
The retired mill worker has spent more than half his life on the coast and weathered his share of storms. He chose the spot where his house stands on tall stilts overlooking the Gulf waters in 1972 after it was the only lot left dry after a storm flooded the beach that year.
While most homes around him are vacation rentals or summer getaways for their owners, Sadousky had stayed put through more than four decades of storms. No longer. Michael was expected to bring surging seas up 9 feet (2.75 meters) above ground level at Keaton Beach.
"I know it's going to cover everything around here," Sadousky said Tuesday, eyeing water lapping at the edge of a canal behind his home. He pulled two small boat docks from the water, packed his pickup and picked some beans from his garden before getting out — like hundreds of thousands elsewhere.
Some additional strengthening is possible today before Michael makes landfall in the Florida Panhandle or the Florida Big Bend area. Weakening is expected after the storm makes landfall.
"We don't know if it's going to wipe out our house or not," Jason McDonald, of Panama City, said as he and his wife drove north to safety into Alabama with their two children, ages 5 and 7. "We want to get them out of the way."
Florida Gov. Rick Scott warned it was a "monstrous hurricane," and his Democratic opponent for the Senate, Sen. Bill Nelson, said a "wall of water" could cause destruction along the Panhandle.
"Don't think that you can ride this out if you're in a low-lying area," Nelson said on CNN.
But some officials were worried by what they weren't seeing — a rush of evacuees.
"I am not seeing the level of traffic on the roadways that I would expect when we've called for the evacuation of 75 percent of this county," Bay County Sheriff Tommy Ford said.
In the dangerously exposed coastal town of Apalachicola, population 2,500, Sally Crown planned to go home and hunker down with her two dogs.
"We've been through this before," she said. "This might be really bad and serious. But in my experience, it's always blown way out of proportion."
Mandatory evacuation orders went into effect in Panama City Beach and other low-lying areas in the storm's path. That included Pensacola Beach but not in Pensacola itself, a city of about 54,000.
Michael could dump up to a foot (30 centimeters) of rain over some Panhandle communities before its remnants go back out to sea by way of the mid-Atlantic states over the next few days. Forecasters said it also could bring 3 to 6 inches of rain to Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia, triggering flash flooding in a corner of the country still recovering from Florence. And isolated tornadoes were also possible.