Hur­ri­cane Michael strength­ens to Cat­e­gory 4 as Florid­i­ans urged to flee

The Guardian Australia - - Headlines - Richard Lus­combe in Mi­ami and agen­cies

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.

Pho­to­graph: Noaa/Hand­out/EPA

A satel­lite im­age of Hur­ri­cane Michael, which is ex­pected to make land­fall on Wed­nes­day,ap­proach­ing the US coast.

Pho­to­graph: Joe Rae­dle/ Getty Im­ages

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.

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