Hurricane Michael sped toward the Florida Panhandle on Tuesday packing 120 mph winds and a potentially deadly storm surge, giving tens of thousands of people little time to get out or board up. The storm strengthened rapidly into a Category 3 — a major hurricane — by evening and was expected to blow ashore about midday today somewhere near Panama City Beach. Gov. Rick Scott has declared a state of emergency that covers more than half the state’s counties, and mandatory evacuations have been ordered in 11 counties. Although the three counties that make up The Villages were not covered in the state of emergency, local officials are closely monitoring the storm knowing that even a slight change in a storm’s track can have a major impact. In a state that’s been pummelled by many hurricanes, officials at all levels were taking the storm deadly serious.
Hurricane-force winds extended outward 45 miles from the storm’s center.
In repeated briefings through the day, Gov. Rick Scott continued to urge residents in the “monstrous” storm’s path to heed evacuation orders and warnings about the dangerous surge.
“You cannot hide from storm surge. This storm is deadly. Do not take a chance,” Scott said. “The state has experienced winds before like this and rain like this. The storm surge could be historic.”
His Democratic opponent for the Senate, Sen. Bill Nelson, said a “wall of water” could cause destruction along the Panhandle.
“Don’t think that you can ride this out if you’re in a low-lying area,” Nelson said on CNN.
While Florence took five days between the time it turned into a hurricane and the moment it rolled into the Carolinas, Michael gave Florida what amounted to two days’ notice. It developed into a hurricane Monday, and by Tuesday more than 180,000 people were under mandatory evacuation orders.
“We don’t know if it’s going to wipe out our house or not,” Jason McDonald, of Panama City, said as he and his wife drove north into Alabama with their two children, ages 5 and 7. “We want to get them out of the way.”
Coastal residents rushed to board up their homes and stock up on bottled water and other supplies.
But some officials were worried by what they weren’t 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 percent of this county,” Bay County Sheriff Tommy Ford said.
Aja Kemp, 36, planned to stay in her mobile home in Crawfordville. She worked all night stocking shelves at a big-box store that was closing later Tuesday, then got to work securing her yard.
Kemp said the bill totaled more than $800 when she and her family fled Hurricane Irma’s uncertain path last year.
“I just can’t bring myself to spend that much money,” she said. “We’ve got supplies to last us a week. Plenty of water. I made sure we’ve got clean clothes. We got everything tied down.”
Mandatory evacuation orders went into effect in Panama City Beach and other low-lying areas in the storm’s path.
Forecasters said parts of the Panhandle and Florida’s marshy, lightly populated Big Bend area — the crook of Florida’s elbow — could see 9 to 13 feet of storm surge.
About 20 miles in from the coast, in Tallahassee, the state capital, people rushed to fill their gas tanks and grab supplies. Many gas stations in Tallahassee had run out of fuel, including the Quick ‘N’ Save, which also was stripped clean of bottled water and down to about two dozen bags of ice.
Michael could dump up to a foot of rain over some Panhandle communities.
Different From Florence
A classic October storm, Michael is quite the contrast to September’s Florence. Michael is likely to be stronger, windier and fast-moving. And the water problem along the coast is more likely to be from storm surge, not rainfall.
“You won’t have days and days of rain. It’ll be gone in about a day,” University of Miami hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy said Tuesday.
Forecasters said it could bring 3 to 6 inches of rain to Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia, triggering flash flooding in a corner of the country still recovering from Florence.
“I know people are fatigued from Florence, but don’t let this storm catch you with your guard down,” North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said, adding, “A number of homes have rooftop tarps that could be damaged or blown away with this wind.”
As the storm closed in on the U.S., it caused havoc in the Caribbean. In Cuba, it dropped more than 10 inches of rain in places, flooding fields, damaging roads, knocking out power and destroying some homes in the western province of Pinar del Rio. Cuban authorities said they evacuated about 400 people from low-lying areas.
Disaster agencies in El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua reported 13 deaths as roofs collapsed and residents were carried away by swollen rivers.
Mississippi and Tennessee have sent search-and-rescue teams with a combined 122 people to Florida or stationed them nearby to help with emergency response efforts.
Voter Registration Lawsuit
The storm’s approach disrupted voter registration efforts on what was supposed to be the last day to register before the Nov. 6 general election. That sparked a partisan fight and a lawsuit.
The Florida Democratic Party sued in federal court, asking a judge to extend the state’s registration deadline by at least a week. Democrats including Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, who is running for governor against Republican Ron DeSantis, called for an extension as Michael’s imminent arrival prompted evacuations and the closing of government offices across the Panhandle.
On Monday, Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner told local election supervisors that if their offices were closed Tuesday they could accept paper applications on the day their offices reopen.
In his order, Detzner said giving some supervisors this extra day to accept paper registration forms would ensure all offices in the state will be open the same number of days.
The Democrats’ lawsuit contends that Detzner’s solution is inadequate and not equally available to all Floridians. The lawsuit asks what happens to people who evacuate and can’t make it back to their local elections offices on the day they reopen.
John Tupps, a spokesman for Scott, did not say if the state planned to fight the lawsuit, but he said that “Gov. Scott is focused on keeping Floridians safe as a major hurricane rapidly approaches our state.”
Nadine Forms Off Africa
Meanwhile, a tropical depression off Africa’s coast grew into Tropical Storm Nadine, the 14th named storm of the season. However, forecasters expect the storm to fizzle out after running into wind shear, drier air and slightly cooler ocean temperatures in open water as it heads west. A third active storm, Leslie, is expected to reach hurricane strength again today as it continues to churn in the middle of the Atlantic. It’s not considered a threat to land.
Katie Sartoris, Phill Stuart, Cody Hills and Rachel Stuart of the Daily Sun staff contributed to this report. Information from The Associated Press and MCT wire services also was included.