A tropical weather system rapidly strengthened Monday into Hurricane Michael Monday and is likely to keep growing stronger ahead of an expected strike on Florida's Panhandle by midweek, forecasters said.
Michael gained new strength over warm tropical waters amid fears it would swiftly intensify into a major hurricane before striking Florida's northeast Gulf Coast, where frantic coastal dwellers are boarding up homes and seeking evacuation routes away from the unsafe storm heading their way. Forecasters predict the storm will bring torrential rains and winds of upwards of 120 miles per hour.
The governor declared a state of emergency for Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton, Holmes, Washington, Bay, Jackson, Calhoun, Gulf, Gadsden, Liberty, Franklin, Leon, Wakulla, Jefferson, Madison, Taylor, Hamilton, Suwannee, Lafayette, Dixie, Columbia, Gilchrist, Levy and Citrus counties.
As the storm moved north it battered Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and western Cuba with drenching rains and winds of up to 80 miles per hour (130 kph), the Miami-based hurricane center said.
Some feared significant tree damage and power outages in Florida's capital city. Up to a foot of rainfall (30 cm) is forecast for some areas.
"This storm will be life-threatening and extremely unsafe", Scott said Sunday following a briefing at the State Emergency Operations Center.
After hitting Florida, it's expected to move up the coast through the Carolinas before reaching Maryland.
The Gulf produces 17 percent of daily US crude oil output and 5 percent of daily natural gas output, according to the US Energy Information Administration.
Mandatory evacuation orders went into effect in Panama City Beach and other low-lying areas in the storm's path.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency had numerous teams deployed and ready to respond, said Fema spokesman Jeff Byard.
Scott activated 500 National Guard troops in advance of the storm. Some 17,000 utility restoration workers were also on call.
Michael is forecasted to become a major hurricane by Tuesday or Tuesday night.
In Panhandle counties, most state offices, schools and universities were closed for the rest of the week.
By Monday evening, queues had formed at service stations and grocery stories as people sought emergency supplies even as the anticipated evacuations would be intensifying in coming hours.
"I just got a crew that came in that are staying also and they're in here helping me get everything buttoned up, tightened down, getting the food secure", Givens said.
The core of the storm was expected to crash ashore around midday Wednesday near Panama City Beach, along a lightly populated stretch of fishing villages and white-sand spring-break beaches.
Michael is now the seventh hurricane of the 2018 season, and will be the first major hurricane to hit this area since Hurricane Dennis in 2005.
There is a risk for tornadoes in Florida on Tuesday and Wednesday. However, forecasters always note it is not possible to say where a hurricane will land until it is closer to the coast. Storm surges can be life-threatening, and a warning usually means rising water could flood inland within 48 hours, according to the NHC.
Torrential downpours and flash flooding from the storm over the weekend caused 13 deaths in Central America. It would head off the Mid-Atlantic coast by Friday, the NHC said.