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Hurricane Michael strengthens to Category 3 as it menaces Florida


October 09. 2018 10:08PM
Lifeguards patrol the beach in advance of Hurricane Michael in Pensacola, Fla., on Tuesday. (REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Hurricane Michael howled closer to Florida’s Gulf shore on Tuesday as a major Category 3 storm, with half a million coastal residents urged to seek higher ground on the eve of a landfall forecast to bring towering waves and roof-shredding winds.

Michael is projected to plow into Florida’s Panhandle at midday on Wednesday, unleashing potentially devastating waves as high as 13 feet 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 Trump declared a state of emergency for the entire state of Florida, freeing up federal assistance to supplement state and local disaster response.

The NHC said the storm was packing sustained winds of up to 120 mph, 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 to dump prodigious amounts of rain over Florida, Alabama and Georgia as well as the Carolinas, which are still reeling from severe flooding last month in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence. Up to a foot of rainfall 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.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott said Michael was expected to be “the most deadly, destructive storm to the Panhandle in decades.”

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 face evacuation orders and advisories in Florida, where residents and tourists were fleeing low-lying areas in at least 20 counties stretching along 200 miles of shore in the Panhandle and adjacent Big Bend regions.

One of them was Betty Early, 75, a retiree who joined about 300 fellow evacuees huddled on makeshift bedrolls of blankets and collapsed cardboard boxes inside 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-frame apartment block would hold up in the coming storm. “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.”

A hurricane warning was posted along more than 300 miles 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.

“The last thing we need is more water,” said Carolyn Causey, business manager of the Trinity United Methodist Church in Conway, South Carolina. The church saw two of its buildings destroyed and three others gutted by floodwaters from Florence.

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.

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

FEMA has deployed numerous disaster response teams to the region. About 2,500 National Guard troops assisted, 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.

(Reporting by Devika Krishna Kumar in Tallahassee, Florida; additional reporting by Rod Nickel in Panama City, Florida, 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; writing by Steve Gorman; editing by Frances Kerry, Phil Berlowitz and Cynthia Osterman)

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