Residents flee as strengthening hurricane closes in on northern Florida
Hurricane Michael is approaching from the Gulf of Mexico.
About 120,000 people along the Florida Panhandle have been ordered to clear out as Hurricane Michael picks up steam in the Gulf of Mexico and closes in with winds of 110mph and a potential storm surge of 12ft.
Beach dwellers rushed to board up their homes and sandbag their properties against the fast-moving hurricane, which is expected to blow ashore around noon on Wednesday.
The speed of the storm gave many people a dwindling number of hours to prepare or flee before being caught up in damaging wind and rain.
“Guess what? That’s today,” National Hurricane Centre director Ken Graham said. “If they tell you to leave, you have to leave.”
Michael is just below the strength of a Category 3 hurricane and is getting stronger, drawing energy from warm Gulf waters.
Florida governor Rick Scott also warned people across north-west Florida that the “monstrous hurricane” was hours away, bringing deadly risks from wind, storm surge and heavy rain.
His Democratic opponent in Florida’s Senate race, Bill Nelson, said a “wall of water” could cause major destruction along the Panhandle.
“Don’t think that you can ride this out if you’re in a low-lying area,” he said.
Water levels will rise well in advance of the arrival of #Michael. It's essential that residents within the storm surge warning area finish preparations to protect life and property today. pic.twitter.com/0Xz3nNkAnr— NHC_Surge (@NHC_Surge) October 9, 2018
Mandatory evacuation orders came into effect for 120,000 people in Panama City Beach and across other low-lying parts of the coast.
Forecasters said parts of Florida’s marshy, lightly populated Big Bend area — the crook of Florida’s elbow — could see up to 12ft of storm surge.
Michael could dump up to 1ft of rain over some Panhandle communities before it sweeps through the south east and goes out to sea over the next few days.
Forecasters said it could also bring 3in to 6in of rain to Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia, triggering flash flooding in a corner of the country still recovering from Hurricane Florence.
“I know people are fatigued from Florence, but don’t let this storm catch you with your guard down,” North Carolina governor Roy Cooper said.
At the western end of the Florida Panhandle, Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan bluntly warned people: “If you decide to stay in your home and a tree falls on your house or the storm surge catches you and you’re now calling for help, there’s no one that can respond to help you.”
In Cuba, the storm dumped more than 10in of rain in places, flooding fields, damaging roads, knocking out power and destroying some homes in the western province of Pinar del Rio.
Cuban authorities said they evacuated about 400 people from low-lying areas.
Disaster agencies in El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua reported 13 deaths as roofs collapsed and residents were carried away by swollen rivers.
I understand that evacuations are inconvenient, but this storm will bring torrential rain and heavy wind, along with dangerous storm surge throughout the panhandle. If you have been told to leave, you need to go. It could be the difference between life & death.— Rick Scott (@FLGovScott) October 9, 2018
In Florida, Mr Scott declared a state of emergency for 35 counties, from the Panhandle to Tampa Bay, activated hundreds of Florida National Guard members and waived tolls to encourage evacuations.
The governors of Alabama and Georgia also declared emergencies.
Mr Scott also told Florida hospitals and nursing homes to do all they can to assure the safety of the elderly and infirm. After Hurricane Irma last year, 14 people died when a south Florida nursing home lost power and air conditioning.
“If you’re responsible for a patient, you’re responsible for the patient. Take care of them,” he said.