Hurricane Michael was upgraded early this morning to “an extremely dangerous” Category 4 storm and could be the most powerful storm to hit the Florida Panhandle in 100 years, forecasters said.
The storm’s sustained winds have increased to about 140 mph, with higher gusts, the National Hurricane Center said. The agency said it is possible the storm could strengthen further before it makes landfall this afternoon.
The Florida Panhandle could see storm surges of up to 13 feet and flash-flooding from heavy rainfall, the NHC said. The chance of tornadoes will also increase into Wednesday over parts of the Panhandle, the northern Florida Peninsula, and southern Georgia.
The storm, which formed off the coast of northern Honduras, has already killed at least 13 people in Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador. Torrential rains triggered flash-flooding and landslides in Central America over the weekend.
As of early Wednesday, the storm was located about 130 miles southwest of Apalachicola, Florida and 140 miles south-southwest of Panama City as it moved north at 13 m.p.h.
The National Weather Service office in Tallahassee called the storm “a potentially catastrophic event” that may leave some locations “uninhabitable for weeks or months.”
Kelly Godsey, a meteorologist with the NWS, said the last hurricane as powerful as Michael to strike the area made landfall more than 100 years ago, in 1894.
“It’s very easy to think that because a hurricane of this intensity hasn’t happened in recent memory that we’re immune,” he said. “But our history tells us something very different. It’s important for us to prepare every hurricane season because major hurricanes cause extensive devastation.”
Duke Energy Florida has projected that 100,000 to 200,000 customers could lose power. The utility company is prepared to mobilize over 7,000 personnel to provide around the clock service to restore power to customers.
Evacuation orders and advisories for about 500,000 people have been called for as the fast-strengthening storm approaches the Gulf shore, Florida officials said.
Many residents and tourists in low-lying areas in at least 20 counties in the Panhandle and adjacent Big Bend region have already fled to shelters.
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump on Tuesday approved a pre-landfall emergency declaration at the request of Florida Governor Rick Scott. The declaration will provide resources and assistance from the federal government, including personnel, equipment and funding for emergency protective measures.
Scott on Sunday issued an order for a state of emergency for 26 counties to rush preparations in the Panhandle and the Big Bend area, freeing up resources and activating 500 members of the Florida National Guard ahead of Tropical Storm Michael. Scott expanded the order on Monday to encompass 35 counties.
“This storm will be life-threatening and extremely dangerous,” Scott said Sunday after receiving a briefing at the State Emergency Operations Center. He warned that storm surge could affect areas of Florida not in the storm’s direct path.