By JENNIFER KAY and GARY FINEOUT , Associated Press
MIAMI (AP) — Residents of Florida’s Panhandle frantically filled sandbags, boarded up homes and secured boats in harbors Monday as they anxiously awaited Hurricane Michael, which forecasters warned could smash into the northeast Gulf Coast as a dangerous major hurricane within days.
Fueled by warm tropical waters, fast-strengthening Michael could gain major hurricane status with winds topping 111 mph (179 kph) before its anticipated landfall Wednesday on the Panhandle or Big Bend area of Florida, forecasters have warned.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott called Michael a “monstrous hurricane” with devastating potential from high winds, storm surge and heavy rains.
He declared a state of emergency for 35 Florida counties from the Panhandle to Tampa Bay, activated hundreds of Florida National Guard members and waived tolls to encourage those close to the coast to evacuate inland.
In the small Panhandle city of Apalachicola, Mayor Van Johnson Sr. said the 2,300 residents are frantically preparing for a major strike.
“We’re looking at a significant storm with significant impact, possibly greater than I’ve seen in my 59 years of life,” he said of the city, which sits on the shore of Apalachicola Bay, an inlet to the Gulf of Mexico famed for producing about 90 percent of Florida’s oysters.
By Monday evening, lines had formed at gas stations and grocery stories as people sought emergency supplies even as the anticipated evacuations would be intensifying in coming hours. Mandatory evacuation orders were issued for residents of barrier islands, mobile homes and low-lying coastal areas in Gulf, Wakulla and Bay counties.
In a Facebook post Monday, the Wakulla County Sheriff’s Office said no shelters would be open because Wakulla County shelters were rated safe only for hurricanes with top sustained winds below 111 mph (178 kph). With Michael’s winds projected to be even stronger than that, Wakulla County 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.
High winds weren’t the only danger. Parts of Florida’s curvy Big Bend could see up to 12 feet (3.7 meters) of storm surge, while Michael also could dump up to a foot (30 centimeters) of rain over some Panhandle communities as it moves inland, forecasters said.
By 5 p.m. Monday, Michael’s top sustained winds were around 80 mph (129 kph) as it headed north at 9 mph (14.5 kph). The storm was centered about 30 miles (48 kilometers) off the western tip of Cuba, and about 520 miles (837 kilometers) south of Apalachicola. Hurricane-force winds extend outward up to 35 miles (56 kilometers) from the core and tropical-storm-force winds out up to 175 miles (282 kilometers).
Michael was lashing western Cuba on Monday with heavy rains and strong winds. Forecasters warned that the storm could produce up to a foot (30 centimeters) of rain in western Cuba, potentially triggering flash floods and mudslides in mountainous areas.
Since the storm will spend two to three days over the Gulf of Mexico, which has warm water and favorable atmospheric conditions, “there is a real possibility that Michael will strengthen to a major hurricane before landfall,” Robbie Berg, a hurricane specialist at the Miami-based storm forecasting hub, wrote in an advisory.
A large mound of sand in Tallahassee was whittled down to a small pile within hours Monday as residents filled sandbags to prepare for potential flooding. A couple breweries in the city offered free filtered water to anyone bringing in growlers, jugs or other containers.
Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, Florida’s Democratic nominee for governor, had planned to campaign in South Florida on Monday and Tuesday, but instead threw himself into helping his city’s residents fill sandbags and get their storm preparations completed.
“Today it is about life and safety,” Gillum said. “There’s nothing between us and this storm but warm water and I think that’s what terrifies us about the potential impacts.”
Tallahassee City Commissioner Gil Ziffer warned that if the storm hits Florida’s capital, there would be significant tree damage and power outages. “Hopefully we will have no one hurt and no loss of life,” Ziffer added.
Two years ago, Hurricane Hermine knocked out power for days in Tallahassee and caused widespread flooding as it came up through the Gulf Coast. Ann Beaver was among the three-quarters of city residents who lost power after that storm. She was preparing Monday for a similar experience.
“I don’t want to lose everything in the freezer, but it is what is,” said Beaver as she loaded sandbags into her family’s pickup truck.
Farther west along Florida’s Panhandle, the city of Pensacola tweeted to residents, “Be sure you have your emergency plan in place.”
In neighboring Alabama, Gov. Kay Ivey signed an emergency declaration for her entire state Monday in anticipation of widespread power outages, wind damage and heavy rain from the storm getting set to cross the eastern Gulf of Mexico in coming hours.
Fineout reported from Tallahassee, Florida.