Updated 9:10 a.m. ET
Hurricane Michael has been upgraded to a “potentially catastrophic” Category 4 storm, with maximum sustained winds of 145 mph, the National Hurricane Center says. Tropical-storm-force winds began hitting the Florida Panhandle Wednesday morning, and water levels were quickly rising.
Just before 9 a.m. ET, the storm was 80 miles south-southwest of Panama City, Fla., moving north at 13 mph. Michael could get even stronger from warm water in the Gulf of Mexico before making landfall in the Florida Panhandle Wednesday, forecasters say.
It would be the first Category 4 storm to hit the Florida Panhandle since records were first kept in 1851, said NHC Director Ken Graham.
“This is definitely [and] unfortunately a historical and incredibly dangerous and life-threatening situation,” he added.
The storm’s center is currently on track to make landfall “pretty close to Panama City” Wednesday afternoon, Graham said. But he warned people who live miles away to be prepared for the hurricane’s “incredibly damaging” winds and storm surge.
Michael is expected to bring life-threatening flash floods and storm surges throughout coastal areas along the Gulf, from Pensacola around the coast to Tampa.
Flooding has already begun in some areas; the National Weather Service office in Tallahassee posted a photo of a building near Panacea, Fla., with water seeming to cover its lower third around 6:30 a.m. local time.
With the storm powering toward the coast, the Weather Channel’s Mike Bettes said he and his crew were leaving Apalachicola, adding, “Better safe than sorry.”
The storm’s winds exploded in strength overnight, with an Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunter aircraft reporting maximum sustained winds of 145 mph shortly before 8 a.m. ET.
With the storm possibly growing even stronger, NHC scientist Eric Blake called it “a near worst-case scenario for the Florida Panhandle.”
The hurricane center has raised its estimates of the storm surge, saying ocean water could reach levels 9-14 feet above ground in a central area around Apalachicola. For miles on either side, low-lying areas could see a surge of 6-9 feet.
The NHC predicts Michael’s center will move inland over the Florida Panhandle or Big Bend area before moving northeastward across the southeastern U.S. tonight and Thursday. It will then move off the Eastern coast — but as it does so, it will also regain some strength from the Atlantic Ocean.
Areas along the coast and inland, miles from the expected landfall zone, will be at risk from this strong and large storm. With its winds at nearly twice the minimum for hurricane status, Michael could remain a hurricane into early Thursday morning — a time when forecasters expect it to have plowed into southern Georgia.
The surge of water began arriving late Tuesday, ahead of the main storm – and before its heavy rains, which will come as drainage systems are already trying to cope with the oceanwater surge.
Water pushed ahead by Michel mixed with high tides on Tuesday afternoon to cause minor flooding in a number of areas on Tuesday afternoon, from Tarpon Springs to Sarasota – an area that includes Tampa Bay, as member station WUSF reports.
Some 300 miles of coastline remain under storm surge, hurricane and tropical storm warnings. Storm surge warnings continue, from the Okaloosa County-Walton County Line to the Anclote River. Another spans from the Anclote River to Anna Maria Island, including Tampa Bay.
“Hurricane-force winds extend outward up to 45 miles from the center and tropical-storm-force winds extend outward up to 185 miles,” the hurricane center said.
Tropical storm warnings are now in effect in the Carolinas, from South Santee River, South Carolina to Surf City, North Carolina. Much of the Alabama coast is also under warning.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott said on Tuesday the storm could bring “total devastation to parts of our state.” At a press conference, he urged families to evacuate, reminding them of Hurricane Irma — last year’s storm that is linked to 80 deaths in Florida.
Tuesday evening, Scott took to Twitter to encourage residents to move inland. “THIS IS YOUR LAST CHANCE to evacuate before conditions start deteriorating within the next few hours,” he wrote.
Residents of the Panhandle and Big Bend face enormous predicted storm surges, the likes of which could destroy homes, according to the National Weather Service. The NHC predicts these coastal regions can expect 9 to 13 feet of storm surge, as the Michael’s winds force a wall of water onto the low-lying shore.
Category 4 storms pack winds from 130-156 mph and cause “catastrophic damage,” according to the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale. Here’s how the scale describes a Category 4’s potential effects:
“Well-built framed homes can sustain severe damage with loss of most of the roof structure and/or some exterior walls. Most trees will be snapped or uprooted and power poles downed. Fallen trees and power poles will isolate residential areas. Power outages will last weeks to possibly months. Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks or months.”
Looking ahead to the aftermath of the storm and the likely downed trees and utility lines, Graham said, “You have to stay away from those power lines. If you have trees down, it’s not the time to start learning how to use that chainsaw.”
People should also keep their generators outside, he added, to avoid being overcome by toxic fumes.