Hurricane Michael was powering up in the Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday, as the storm already blamed for 13 deaths in the Caribbean and Central America barrelled north towards a potentially catastrophic landfall in the Floridapanhandle on Wednesday.
Residents of several counties directly in the path of Michael’s predicted 120mph winds and storm surge of up to 12ft were warned that time was running out to evacuate and that anybody who remained would be on their own.
“I can’t stress strongly enough the importance of leaving as early as possible,” said Bay county sheriff Tommy Ford, adding that more than 120,000 residents of coastal and low-lying areas under mandatory evacuation orders “would not be dragged from their homes”.
“People need to start leaving now,” he said. “Please evacuate now. Evacuation routes can quickly turn into traffic nightmares.”
Michael would be the strongest hurricane to strike Florida’s panhandle since 2005, and officials including Donald Trump, Florida governor Rick Scott and Andrew Gillum, the Tallahassee mayor aiming to succeed Scott in next month’s election, all urged citizens not to underestimate the storm.
“Today it is about life and safety,” Gillum said as he helped city residents fill sandbags for flood defences on Monday. “There’s nothing between us and this storm but warm water, and I think that’s what terrifies us about the potential impacts.”
According to the National Hurricane Center (NHC) in Miami, the centre of Michael was just 400 miles south of Panama City Beach at 8am on Tuesday and moving north at 12mph.
Overnight, the storm’s maximum sustained winds had climbed to 100mph after sucking heat from the Gulf, the NHC said, with hurricane force winds extending 35 miles from its core. Forecasters predicted further strengthening was likely to occur before Michael makes landfall around lunchtime on Wednesday as a category three hurricane.
Parts of Florida’s marshy, lightly populated Big Bend area could see up to 12ft of storm surge, while Michael also could dump up to a foot of rain over some panhandle communities.
In western Cuba, Michael triggered flash floods and mudslides in mountain areas. Disaster agencies in El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua reported 13 deaths as roofs collapsed and residents were carried away by swollen rivers. Six people died in Honduras, four in Nicaragua and three in El Salvador. Authorities were searching for a boy swept away by a river in Guatemala. Heavy rains swamped the region at the weekend after Michael formed of the coast of Honduras.
Scott, the Florida governor, called Michael a “monstrous hurricane” with a devastating potential from high winds, storm surge and heavy rains. He declared a state of emergency for 35 counties, from the Panhandle to Tampa Bay, activated hundreds of national guard members and waived tolls to encourage evacuations.
He also warned caregivers at north Florida hospitals and nursing homes to do all possible to assure the safety of the elderly and infirm. Following Hurricane Irma last year, 14 people died when a south Florida nursing home lost power and air conditioning.
“If you’re responsible for a patient, you’re responsible for the patient. Take care of them,” Scott said.
Sheriff David Morgan of Escambia county bluntly advised residents choosing to ride it out that first-responders would not be able to reach them while Michael hits the coast.
“If you decide to stay in your home and a tree falls on your house or the storm surge catches you and you’re now calling for help, there’s no one that can respond to help you,” Morgan said.
In the small Panhandle city of Apalachicola, Mayor Van Johnson Sr said 2,300 residents were frantically preparing for what could be a strike unlike any seen there in decades. Many filled sandbags and boarded up homes and lined up to buy gas and groceries before leaving town.
“We’re looking at a significant storm with significant impact, possibly greater than I’ve seen in my 59 years of life,” Johnson said of his city on the shore of Apalachicola Bay, which where about 90% of Florida’s oysters are harvested.
No shelters will be open in Wakulla county, the sheriff’s office warned on Facebook, because they are rated safe only for hurricanes with sustained winds below 111mph. With Michael’s winds projected to be even stronger, 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.
The entire neighboring state of Alabama is under an emergency declaration. Governor Kay Ivey said she feared widespread power outages and other problems would follow. Forecasters warned spinoff tornadoes would also be a threat.
Speaking in Orlando on Monday, Trump said he had made federal resources available to authorities in Florida.
“As Hurricane Michael nears landfall we are working with state and local officials to take all necessary precautions. I told Rick Scott that we are ready for you. Looks like another big one, but we’ve handled them well,” the president said.
Richard Luscombe is a freelance correspondent based in Miami, Florida.
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