Hurricane Michael gains strength on course for north Florida

MIAMI (AP) — Michael gained new strength over warm tropical waters amid fears it would swiftly intensify into a major hurricane before striking Florida's northeast Gulf Coast, where frantic coastal dwellers are boarding up homes and seeking evacuation routes away from the dangerous storm heading their way.

A hurricane hunter plane that bounced into the swirling eye of Michael off the west tip of Cuba late Monday found wind speeds were rising even as forecasters warned the storm could reach major hurricane status with winds topping 111 mph (179 kph) by Tuesday night. Anticipated landfall is expected Wednesday on the northeast Gulf Coast, where authorities warned of a potentially devastating strike.

By early Tuesday, Michael's top sustained winds had risen some to 90 mph (144 kph) as it headed north at 12 mph (19 kph). The storm was centered about 425 miles (684 kilometers) south of Apalachicola and 455 miles (732 kilometers) south of Panama City, Florida. Hurricane-force winds extended outward up to 35 miles (56 kilometers) from the core and tropical-storm-force winds out 175 miles (280 kilometers).Hurricane-force winds extended outward up to 35 miles (56 kilometers) from the core and tropical-storm-force winds out 175 miles (280 kilometers). Michael was lashing western Cuba on Monday with heavy rains and strong winds.

Forecasters warned that Michael, now a Category 1 storm, could dump up to a foot (30 centimeters) of rain in western Cuba, potentially triggering 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 also searching for a boy swept away by a river in Guatemala. Most of the rain was blamed on a low-pressure system off the Pacific coast of El Salvador. Hurricane Michael in the Caribbean could have also contributed.

On the Florida Panhandle, Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan bluntly advised residents who choose to ride out the storm that first responders won't be able to reach them during or immediately after Michael smashes into 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 at a news conference.

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Preparations for Hurricane Michael
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Preparations for Hurricane Michael
Lifeguards patrol the beach in advance of Hurricane Michael in Pensacola, Florida, U.S. October 9, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman
This satellite image provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows a view of Tropical Storm Michael, lower right, churning as it heads toward the Florida Panhandle, Sunday, Oct. 7, 2018, at 6:52 p.m. Eastern Time. (NOAA via AP)
Culwinder Singh, top, and Sukhdeep Uppal board up the front of their store in advance of Hurricane Michael in Destin, Florida, U.S. October 9, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman
Rob Docko ties a knot while securing his boat at the St. Andrews Marina in Panama City, Fla., Monday, Oct. 8, 2018, to prepare for Hurricane Michael. (Patti Blake /News Herald via AP)
A red flag, warning of dangerous conditions, is seen on a pier in advance of Hurricane Michael in Pensacola, Florida, U.S. October 9, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman
Alexander Charnicharo fishes at the seafront in Havana as Hurricane Michael passes by western Cuba on October 8, 2018. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini
Capt. Steve Haeusler, left, and Wyatt Ferreira take down the sign for Haeusler's charter fishing boat "First Light" on Monday, Oct. 8, 2018. Boat captains in this fishing community were relocating their vessels to safer locations in advance of Hurricane Michael. (Devon Ravine/Northwest Florida Daily News via AP)
A woman, who refused to give her name, looks out over the water from her porch amid fears she will never see her home again as Hurricane Michael bears down on Alligator Point, Florida, U.S., October 9, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 08: Drivers line up for gasoline as Hurricane Michael bears down on the northern Gulf coast of Florida on October 8, 2018 in Tallahassee, Florida. Michael was forecast to become a Category 3 storm with sustained winds of 120 mph when it makes landfall in the Florida panhandle later this week. (Photo by Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images)
Commercial boats leave the Destin Harbor in Destin, Fla., on Monday, Oct. 8, 2018. Residents of this Florida panhandle city were busy Monday readying themselves for Hurricane Michael, which is predicted to make landfall somewhere around Panama City, Fla. (Devon Ravine/Northwest Florida Daily News via AP)
TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 08: Drivers line up for gasoline as Hurricane Michael bears down on the northern Gulf coast of Florida on October 8, 2018 in Tallahassee, Florida. Michael was forecast to become a Category 3 storm with sustained winds of 120 mph when it makes landfall in the Florida panhandle later this week. (Photo by Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images)
Bobby Smith boards up the windows at Jani's Ceramics in Panama City, Fla., on Monday, Oct. 8, 2018, in preparation for the arrival of Hurricane Michael. (Patti Blake/News Herald via AP)
TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 08: People line up for gasoline as Hurricane Michael bears down on the northern Gulf coast of Florida on October 8, 2018 outside Tallahassee, Florida. Michael was forecast to become a Category 3 storm with sustained winds of 120 mph when it makes landfall in the Florida panhandle later this week. (Photo by Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images)
Aaron Smith carries a couple hundred feet of anchor rope as prepares to move his charter fishing boat "Sea Fix" from the Destin Harbor in Destin, Fla., on Monday, Oct. 8, 2018. Boat captains in this fishing community were relocating their vessels to safer locations in advance of Hurricane Michael. (Devon Ravine/Northwest Florida Daily News via AP)
Tallahassee Mayor and Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Andrew Gillum, left, helps Eboni Sipling fill up sandbags in Tallahassee, Fla., Monday, Oct. 8, 2018. Residents in Florida's Panhandle and Big Bend are getting ready for Hurricane Michael, which is expected to make landfall by midweek. (AP Photo/Gary Fineout)
Wyatt Ferreira gets ready to move the charter fishing boat "First Light" from its mooring in the harbor in Destin, Fla., Monday, Oct. 8, 2018. Boat captains in this fishing community were relocating their vessels to safer waters in advance of Hurricane Michael. (Devon Ravine/Northwest Florida Daily News via AP)
Bobby Smith boards up the windows at Jani's Ceramics in Panama City, Fla., on Monday, Oct. 8, 2018, in preparation for the arrival of Hurricane Michael. (Patti Blake/News Herald via AP)
A worker removes equipment from a home as Hurricane Michael bears down on Alligator Point, Florida, U.S., October 9, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
Justin Davis, left, and Brock Mclean board up a business in advance of Hurricane Michael in Destin, Florida, U.S. October 9, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman
A red flag, warning of dangerous conditions, is seen in advance of Hurricane Michael in Pensacola, Florida, U.S. October 9, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman
Ray Callahan pumps gasoline in advance of Hurricane Michael in Gulf Breeze, Florida, U.S. October 9, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman
A woman jogs with a dog as waves splash at the seafront in Havana, after Hurricane Michael passed in western Cuba, October 9, 2018. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini
A woman who refused to give her name, wipes a tear as she sits and packs her final few belongings and fears she will never see her home again as Hurricane Michael bears down on Alligator Point, Florida, U.S., October 9, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
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Florida Gov. Rick Scott called Michael a "monstrous hurricane" with a devastating potential from high winds, storm surge and heavy rains. He Scott 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 near the coast to evacuate inland.

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," he said.

In the small Panhandle city of Apalachicola, Mayor Van Johnson Sr. said the 2,300 residents are frantically preparing for a major hurricane strike that could be unlike any seen there in decades. Many filled sandbags and boarded up homes. Residents also lined up to buy gas and groceries even as evacuations — both voluntary and mandatory — were expected to pick up the pace Tuesday.

"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 the city, straddling the shore of Apalachicola Bay, a Gulf of Mexico inlet that reaps about 90 percent of Florida's oysters.

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.

Spinoff tornadoes would also be a threat

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.

Neighbors in Alabama — the entire state is under an emergency declaration — also were bracing. Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said she feared widespread power outages and other problems would follow. Forecasters also warned spinoff tornadoes would also be a threat.

With the storm next entering the eastern part of 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 against potential flooding.

Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, Florida's Democratic nominee for governor, filled sandbags with residents and urged residents of the state capital city to finish up emergency preparations quickly. Local authorities fear power outages and major tree damage from Michael.

"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."

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