Hurricane Michael strengthens to Category 3 as it menaces Florida

TALLAHASSEE, Fla., Oct 9 (Reuters) - Hurricane Michael grew into a major Category 3 storm as it howled closer to Florida's Gulf shore on Tuesday, sending tens of thousands of coastal residents fleeing to higher ground one day before its expected arrival with towering waves and roof-shredding winds.

Michael is projected to plow into Florida's panhandle at midday on Wednesday, unleashing potentially devastating waves of seawater as high as 12 feet (3.6 meters) that could rush inland for miles around the storm's center, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) warned.

By Tuesday, Michael was already causing major disruptions to U.S. oil and gas production as it churned north over the Gulf of Mexico.

President Donald Trump declared a state of emergency for the entire state of Florida, freeing up federal assistance to supplement state and local disaster response.

23 PHOTOS
Preparations for Hurricane Michael
See Gallery
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
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

At latest report, the NHC said the storm was packing sustained winds of up to 120 miles per hour (195 km per hour), jumping from a Category 2 to Category 3 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson wind scale.

Winds of that magnitude can inflict substantial damage to roofs and walls of even well-constructed homes, according to the National Weather Service.

The storm also is likely dump prodigious amounts of rain over Florida, Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas - still recovering from severe flooding last month in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence. Up to a foot of rainfall (30 cm) 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.

(Photo: NOAA GOES-East/Handout via Reuters)

Florida Governor Rick Scott said Michael was expected to be "the most deadly, destructive storm to the panhandle in decades."

Tens of thousands of residents and tourists were ordered evacuated from low-lying areas in at least 20 Florida counties stretching along 200 miles (322 km) of shore in the Panhandle and adjacent Big Bend regions. A hurricane warning was posted along more than 300 miles (483 km) of the coast from the Florida-Alabama border south to the Suwannee River.

"If you don't follow warnings from officials this storm could kill you," said Scott, a Republican running for the U.S. Senate in November's congressional elections.

Some of the storm's most significant early impact was to offshore energy production. U.S. producers in the Gulf cut oil production by about 40 percent and natural gas output by 28 percent on Tuesday, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement said, citing reports from 27 companies.

The Gulf accounts for 17 percent of daily U.S. crude oil output and 5 percent of daily gas production, according to government figures. The partial shutdown ahead of Michael helped drive oil prices slightly higher on Tuesday.

Scott declared a state of emergency in 35 counties, mostly encompassing rural areas known for small tourist cities, beaches, wildlife reserves and the state capital, Tallahassee.

(Reporting by Devika Krishna Kumar Additional reporting by Susan Heavey and Roberta Rampton in Washington, Gina Cherelus and Barbara Goldberg in New York, Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee, Liz Hampton in Houston, Andrew Hay in New Mexico; editing by Bill Berkrot and Frances Kerry)

Read Full Story