Hurricane Michael gathers strength

Florida-bound storm upgraded to Cat 4, half a million people in state told to evacuate

Waves crashing as the outer bands of Hurricane Michael arrived at Panama City Beach, Florida, yesterday. The hurricane could possibly unleash waves as high as 4m when it makes landfall on Florida's Panhandle.
Waves crashing as the outer bands of Hurricane Michael arrived at Panama City Beach, Florida, yesterday. The hurricane could possibly unleash waves as high as 4m when it makes landfall on Florida's Panhandle. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

TALLAHASSEE • Hurricane Michael grew into a potentially deadly Category 4 storm yesterday before it was due to smash 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 220kmh 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 4m, the National Hurricane Centre (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 yesterday.

Some of the storm's most significant early impact was to offshore energy production. US producers in the Gulf cut oil production by about 40 per cent and natural gas output by 28 per cent on Tuesday, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement said.

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.

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 72km from the centre, with tropical storm-force winds reaching 298km, 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 30cm of rainfall is forecast for some areas.

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

Mr 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 322km of shore in the Panhandle and adjacent Big Bend region.

Among them was Ms 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 to," she told Reuters. "My greatest concern is not having electricity, and living on a fixed income, losing my food."

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.

Mr 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.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 11, 2018, with the headline Hurricane Michael gathers strength. Subscribe