A tropical weather system has rapidly strengthened into Hurricane Michael and is likely to keep growing stronger ahead of an expected strike on Florida’s Panhandle by midweek, forecasters said.
Michael could strengthen into a major hurricane with winds topping 111mph by Tuesday night before an expected strike on Wednesday on the Panhandle or Big Bend, according to the National Hurricane Centre.
Since the storm will spend two to three days over the Gulf of Mexico, which has very warm water temperatures and favourable atmospheric conditions, “there is a real possibility that Michael will strengthen to a major hurricane before landfall”, said Robbie Berg, a hurricane specialist at the Miami-based storm forecasting hub.
Florida governor Rick Scott said Hurricane Michael is a “monstrous storm” that has the potential to be devastating to the Florida Panhandle.
Speaking alongside emergency officials, Mr Scott declared a state of emergency for 35 counties and asked President Donald Trump for assistance ahead of the storm.
He warned that the storm surge could be as high as 8ft-10ft in some parts of the Panhandle and 2ft-4ft in the Tampa Bay area.
Michael’s large size, strong winds and heavy rains could produce hazardous flooding along a stretch of Florida’s Gulf coast, with many rivers and estuaries where sea water pushed ashore by a hurricane could get trapped, said hurricane centre director Ken Graham.
“This is a part of the Gulf of Mexico that is incredibly vulnerable to storm surge,” he said.
Parts of Florida’s curvy Big Bend could see up to 12ft of storm surge, while Michael also could dump up to a foot of rain over some Panhandle communities as it moves inland, forecasters said.
Mandatory evacuation orders were issued for residents of barrier islands, mobile homes and low-lying coastal areas in Gulf, Wakulla and Bay counties.
In a Facebook post, Wakulla County Sheriff’s Office said no shelters would be open because Wakulla County shelters were rated safe only for hurricanes with top sustained winds below 111mph. With Michael’s winds projected to be stronger than that, Wakulla County residents were urged to evacuate inland.
“This storm has the potential to be a historic storm, please take heed,” the sheriff’s office said in the post.
Michael was lashing western Cuba on Monday with heavy rains and strong winds, according to the hurricane centre. Forecasters warned that the storm could produce up to a foot of rain in western Cuba, potentially triggering flash floods and mudslides in mountainous areas.- Press Association