‘Monstrous’ Hurricane Michael on course to batter Florida

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Hurricane 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 dangerous storm heading their way.

A hurricane hunter plane that bounced into the swirling eye of Michael off the west tip of Cuba found wind speeds were rising even as forecasters warned the storm could reach major hurricane status with winds topping 179km/h by Tuesday night.

Anticipated landfall is expected Wednesday on the northeast Gulf Coast, where authorities warned of a potentially devastating strike.

By early Tuesday, Michael’s top sustained winds had risen some to 144 km/h as it headed north.

Forecasters warned that Michael, now a Category 1 storm, could dump up to a foot 30 cms of rain in western Cuba, potentially triggering flash floods and mudslides in mountain areas.

This US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellite photo shows the gathering storm heading for the Florida coast.

This US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellite photo shows the gathering storm heading for the Florida coast.

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's predicted path of Hurricane Michael.

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's predicted path of Hurricane Michael.

Disaster agencies in El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua reported 13 deaths as roofs collapsed and residents were carried away by swollen rivers. Six people died in Honduras, four in Nicaragua and three in El Salvador.

Authorities were also searching for a boy swept away by a river in Guatemala. Most of the rain was blamed on a low-pressure system off the Pacific coast of El Salvador. Hurricane Michael in the Caribbean could have also contributed.

On the north-west Florida coast – known as the Panhandle – Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan bluntly advised residents who choose to ride out the storm that first responders won’t be able to reach them during or immediately after Michael smashes into the coast.

The Cuban capital Havana received a deluge of rain from the storm when it crossed the island nation.

The Cuban capital Havana received a deluge of rain from the storm when it crossed the island nation.

“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,” Morgan said at a news conference.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott called Michael a “monstrous hurricane” with a devastating potential from high winds, storm surge and heavy rains.

He declared a state of emergency for 35 Florida counties from the Panhandle to Tampa Bay, activated hundreds of Florida National Guard members and waived tolls to encourage those near the coast to evacuate inland.

He also warned caregivers at north Florida hospitals and nursing homes to do all possible to assure the safety of the elderly and infirm. Following Hurricane Irma last year, 14 people died when a South Florida nursing home lost power and air conditioning.

Florida residents stock up on fuel ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Michael.

Florida residents stock up on fuel ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Michael.

In the small city of Apalachicola, Mayor Van Johnson Sr. said the 2,300 residents are frantically preparing for a major hurricane strike that could be unlike any seen there in decades. Many filled sandbags and boarded up homes. Residents also lined up to buy gas and groceries even as evacuations — both voluntary and mandatory — were expected to pick up the pace Tuesday.

“We’re looking at a significant storm with significant impact, possibly greater than I’ve seen in my 59 years of life,” Johnson said of the city, straddling the shore of Apalachicola Bay, a Gulf of Mexico inlet that reaps about 90 percent of Florida’s oysters.

Mandatory evacuation orders were issued for residents of barrier islands, mobile homes and low-lying coastal areas in Gulf, Wakulla and Bay counties.

In a Facebook post Monday, the Wakulla County Sheriff’s Office said no shelters would be open because Wakulla County shelters were rated safe only for hurricanes with top sustained winds below 178km/h. With Michael’s winds projected to be even stronger than that, Wakulla County residents were urged to evacuate inland.

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chart shows the arrival time of hurricane force winds across Florida.

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chart shows the arrival time of hurricane force winds across Florida.

“This storm has the potential to be a historic storm, please take heed,” the sheriff’s office said in the post.

High winds weren’t the only danger. Parts of Florida could see up to 3.7 metres of storm surge, while Michael also could dump up to 30 cms of rain over some Panhandle communities as it moves inland, forecasters said.

Neighbours in Alabama – the entire state is under an emergency declaration – also were bracing. Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said she feared widespread power outages and other problems would follow. Forecasters also warned spin-off tornadoes would also be a threat.

With the storm next entering the eastern part of the Gulf of Mexico, which has warm water and favourable atmospheric conditions, “there is a real possibility that Michael will strengthen to a major hurricane before landfall,” Robbie Berg, a hurricane specialist at the Miami-based storm forecasting hub, wrote in an advisory.

A large mound of sand in Tallahassee was whittled down to a small pile within hours Monday as residents filled sandbags against potential flooding.

People swim in the turbulent sea at a beach in Cancun, Quintana Roo, Mexico, when the storm moved through the Gulf of Mexico.

People swim in the turbulent sea at a beach in Cancun, Quintana Roo, Mexico, when the storm moved through the Gulf of Mexico.

Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, Florida’s Democratic nominee for governor, filled sandbags with residents and urged residents of the state capital city to finish up emergency preparations quickly. Local authorities fear power outages and major tree damage from Michael.

“Today it is about life and safety,” Gillum said.

“There’s nothing between us and this storm but warm water and I think that’s what terrifies us about the potential impacts.”

© Nine Digital Pty Ltd 2018

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