Michael has intensified into an extremely dangerous Category 4 hurricane with winds of at least 209 kph and is expected to strengthen further before making landfall in the Florida Panhandle the U.S. National Hurricane Center said on Wednesday.
By late Tuesday, Michael was causing major disruptions to U.S. oil-and-gas production as it churned north, gathering greater strength over warm Gulf of Mexico waters.
President Donald Trump declared a state of emergency for the entire state of Florida, freeing up federal assistance to supplement state and local disaster responses.
NHC Director Ken Graham said Michael represented a “textbook case” of a hurricane system growing stronger as it drew near shore, in contrast to Hurricane Florence, which struck North Carolina last month after weakening in a slow, halting approach. Hurricane-force winds extend about 40 miles from the center, with tropical storm-force winds reaching 185 miles, Graham said.
The storm is likely to dump prodigious amounts of rain over Florida, Alabama and Georgia, as well as the Carolinas - still reeling from post-Florence flooding - and into Virginia. Up to 30 cm of rain is forecast for some areas. “This is a storm that is going to be life-threatening in several ways,” said Bo Patterson, the mayor of Port St. Joe, Florida, whose small beachfront town lies directly in the storm’s projected path.
Florida Governor Rick Scott said Michael was expected to be “the most deadly, destructive storm to the Panhandle in decades.” The region should brace for “major infrastructure damage,” specifically to electricity distribution, wastewater treatment systems and transportation networks, Jeff Byard, associate administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told reporters on a conference call.
Byard said an estimated 500,000 people were under evacuation orders and advisories in Florida, where residents and tourists were fleeing low-lying areas.