Hurricane Michael strengthens to become a category 4 storm as Florida braces itself

TALLAHASSEE, Fla., Oct 10 (Reuters) - Hurricane Michael strengthened into a Category 4 storm early on Wednesday before it was expected to plow into Florida's Gulf shore with towering waves and roof-shredding winds as 500,000 people were under evacuation orders and advisories.

Hurricane Michael was packing winds of up to 130 miles per hour (210 km per hour), hours before it was set to make landfall on Florida's Panhandle or Florida's Big Bend where it potentially could unleash devastating waves as high as 13 feet (4 meters), the National Hurricane Center (NHC) warned.

"THIS IS YOUR LAST CHANCE to evacuate before conditions start deteriorating within the next few hours," said Florida Governor Rick Scott in a Tweet early on Wednesday.

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

Michael gathered greater strength over warm Gulf of Mexico waters throughout the day on Tuesday as it jumped from a Category 2 to Category 3 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson wind scale.

The last NHC report said the fast-moving storm was about 180 miles (325 km) from Panama City, Florida.

Winds as strong as Michael is producing can inflict substantial damage to roofs and walls of even well-constructed homes, according to the National Weather Service.

NHC Director Ken Graham said Michael represented a "textbook case" of a hurricane system growing stronger as it drew near shore, in contrast to Hurricane Florence, which struck North Carolina last month after weakening in a slow, halting approach.

Hurricane-force winds extend about 45 miles from the center, with tropical storm-force winds reaching 175 miles, the NHC said.

The storm is likely to dump prodigious amounts of rain over Florida, Alabama and Georgia, as well as the Carolinas - still reeling from post-Florence flooding - and into Virginia. Up to a foot of rainfall (30 cm) is forecast for some areas.

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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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The region should brace for "major infrastructure damage," specifically to electricity distribution, wastewater treatment systems and transportation networks, Jeff Byard, associate administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), told reporters on a conference call.

Byard said an estimated 500,000 people were under evacuation orders and advisories in Florida, where residents and tourists were fleeing low-lying areas in at least 20 counties stretching along 200 miles (322 km) of shore in the Panhandle and adjacent Big Bend region.

Among them was Betty Early, 75, a retiree who joined about 300 fellow evacuees huddled on makeshift bedrolls of blankets and collapsed cardboard boxes at an elementary school converted into an American Red Cross shelter in Panama City, near the storm's expected landfall.

She was unsure how well her old, wood-framed apartment block would hold up. "I'm blessed to have a place to come," she told Reuters. "My greatest concern is not having electricity, and living on a fixed income, losing my food."

'THIS STORM COULD KILL YOU'

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.

While the swiftly moving storm is not expected to linger over Florida for long, widespread heavy downpours will likely track inland to flood-stricken areas of the Carolinas even as rain-gorged rivers there begin to recede, National Weather Service meteorologist Ken Widelski told the conference call.

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.

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

Georgia Governor Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency on Tuesday for 92 counties in his state.

About 2,500 National Guard troops were deployed to assist with evacuations and storm preparations, and more than 4,000 others were on standby. Some 17,000 utility restoration workers were also on call.

In Panhandle counties, most state offices, schools and universities were closed for the rest of the week. Lines at gasoline stations grew as people left. Those who stayed emptied grocery store shelves of water and other supplies.

The last major hurricane to hit the Panhandle was Hurricane Dennis in 2005, according to hurricane center data.

Torrential downpours and flash flooding from the storm over the weekend caused 13 deaths in Central America.

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