Hurricane Michael strengthens to Category 4 as Floridians urged to flee
Hurricane Michael has strengthened into a Category 4 storm as it continues to plow through the Gulf of Mexico towards a potentially catastrophic landfall along the Florida Panhandle, where 500,000 people have either been ordered or advised to evacuate.
By midday on Wednesday it is expected to become one of the Panhandle’s worst hurricanes in memory, with heavy rainfall expected along the north-eastern Gulf Coast, a life-threatening storm surge of up to 13 feet (4 metres), and sustained winds climbing to 120mph (190km/h).
“THIS IS YOUR LAST CHANCE to evacuate before conditions start deteriorating within the next few hours,” Florida governor Rick Scott tweeted early on Wednesday.
More than 20 million people across five states, Florida, Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas, were under a hurricane or tropical storm warning by Tuesday evening. 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.
The storm has claimed at least 13 lives during its northerly march through the western Caribbean and Central America.
Donald Trump made a disaster declaration for Florida that allows the resources of the federal emergency management agency (Fema) to be deployed. Early reports of flooding from the Panhandle were received before nightfall.
At 2am on Wednesday, the eye of Michael was about 180 miles (289km) south-southwest of Panama City, Florida. It was also about 170 miles (273km) south-west of Apalachicola, Florida. Hurricane-force winds extend outward up to 45 miles from the centre and tropical-storm-force winds extend outward up to 175 miles.
Authorities upgraded the hurricane to a Category 4 status in the early hours of Wednesday morning. They said Category 4 storms were “extremely dangerous” and had the potential to devastate large areas and leave homes without power for weeks.
Some officials were worried that they were not 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% of this county,” the Bay county sheriff, Tommy Ford said.
Officials including Trump, Scott and Andrew Gillum, the Tallahassee mayor aiming to become governor in next month’s election, all urged citizens not to underestimate the storm.
Speaking at an emergency management briefing on Tuesday morning, Scott, who declared a state of emergency in 35 of Florida’s 67 counties from the Panhandle to Tampa Bay, said the forecast “keeps getting more dangerous. This storm will be life-threatening and extremely dangerous.”
At the White House, Trump told reporters the federal government was “very well-prepared”.
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 off the coast of Honduras.
Scott 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 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, 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.
In Georgia, Governor Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency for more than 90 counties, and in North and South Carolina areas affected by flooding in Hurricane Florence last month were bracing for a foot of more of additional rainfall.
A satellite image of Hurricane Michael, which is expected to make landfall on Wednesday,approaching the US coast.
A woman spray paints the words “Calmdown Michael” on the plywood over herdaughter’s business in preparation for thearrival of Hurricane Michael in MexicoBeach, Florida.