Miami, Florida : Tropical storm Michael strengthened into a Category 1 Hurricane on Monday, with authorities predicting it was headed for the Gulf of Mexico.
The weather system could produce winds topping 111 mph by Tuesday night, before slamming into the Florida Panhandle or Big Bend, according to the National Hurricane Center.
A fast-changing Michael has strengthened to a hurricane and is likely to become a major, Cat 3 storm as it churns toward Florida’s Panhandle and Big Bend.
In an 11 a.m. update Monday, National Hurricane Center forecasters said sustained winds have climbed to 75 mph and could reach 120 mph in the next 48 hours. The storm was moving north at 7 mph and was located about 50 miles south of Cuba’s western tip, where strong winds and heavy rain had already begun pounding the island. Hurricane winds are expected to arrive later today as the eye nears the west end, increasing the risk for dangerous flash-flooding, forecasters said.
Over the next day, Michael is likely to continue intensifying and could rapidly strengthen to a Cat 3 as it enters the southeastern Gulf of Mexico and crosses warm waters, before making a Wednesday landfall, forecasters said.
In a morning briefing, Gov. Rick Scott urged residents to pay careful attention to weather updates and warned that evacuation orders could be issued today.
“Impacts could begin tomorrow night, which means in 36 hours,” he said. “We know that storms like Michael can be absolutely devastating and life threatening, and that’s why we have to take this very seriously.”
A state of emergency declared for 26 counties in the storm’s path could be expanded later today, he said. In Bay County, emergency operations officials said bridge closings are likely and a schedule for possible evacuations decided later today. Visitors should make plans immediately to leave, they said.
A hurricane watch extends from the Alabama-Florida border eastward to the Suwanee River.
A tropical storm watch was also issued from the Suwanee River to Anna Maria Island Florida, including Tampa Bay.
Tropical storm warnings were already in effect for the Mexican coast from Tulum to Cabo Catoche, as well as Pinar Del Rio and the Isle of Youth in Cuba.
Hurricane force winds extend about 30 miles from the compact storm’s center, with tropical storm force winds reaching 175 miles, generating a dangerous storm surge. Between Indian Pass and Crystal River, surge could reach seven to 11 feet. Michael could also dump up to eight inches of rain, with 12 inches possible in some areas along the northeastern Gulf Coast. The Florida Keys are expected to get 2 to 4 inches of rain.
Forecasters say the storm should speed up Tuesday night, but models differ on how fast it moves across the northern Gulf of Mexico. They gave it a 55 to 60 percent chance of rapidly intensifying over the next 24 hours, but expect strengthening to slow after that as wind shear picks up. The storm should weaken once it makes landfall, but there’s a chance part of Michael stays over the Gulf and continues to generate tropical storm conditions, they said.
The approaching storm coincides with a seasonal king tide in South Florida, which is also expected to trigger some coastal flooding. Monday morning, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warned some street flooding is possible and low-lying areas may also see rising water at high tides about 8:40 a.m. and again at 9 p.m.
Holmes County Schools will be closed Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday due to Hurricane Michael. This will allow families sufficient time to make preparations & evacuate if desired. Information regarding the opening of the special needs shelter at Poplar Springs School coming later.
The only other storm currently in the Atlantic Ocean is Tropical Storm Leslie, which has zig-zagged in intensity. Maximum sustained winds are near 50 mph with higher gusts, the NHC said in an 11 a.m. CDT advisory, adding that slow strengthening is forecast during the next few days. The storm is currently in the central Atlantic Ocean, 1,035 miles east of Bermuda and 1,135 miles west of the Azores. Leslie was a subtropical storm on Sept. 23 but weakened into depression, then back into a tropical storm.