(TNS) — Thousands fled the fine-sand beaches of Florida’s Panhandle on Tuesday as a deepening Hurricane Michael advanced its assault on the porous coast of bays, sounds and snaking rivers.
The swift-moving cyclone is forecast to bully ashore Wednesday afternoon between Fort Walton Beach and Carabelle as a stout 125-mph Category 3 storm — an intensity that would rival 1975’s Hurricane Eloise that landed near Fort Walton beach with 126-mph winds.
As of 5 p.m., Michael had gained wind speeds of 120 mph as it marched north at 12 mph.
Its quick formation and forward speed left limited time for preparation compared to the five days of suspense between Florence’s birth as a hurricane and its Category 1 landfall near Wrightsville Beach on Sept. 14.
“I’m 59 years old and lived here all my life and I don’t think I’ve ever been this concerned,” said Johnny Paul, who was boarding up his Wewa Outdoors shop on Tuesday in Wewahitchka, about 17 miles north of Mexico Beach. “When you wake up and see Jim Cantore is just an hour away, you get a little nervous.”
Cantore, a Weather Channel broadcast meteorologist, was in Panama City Beach Tuesday morning. The Santa Rosa County Sheriff’s Office issued a playful no trespassing warning for the veteran storm chaser saying it would prefer he make “non business-related visits” during winter months.
Paul said he was most worried about wind damage, but it was the flush of saltwater storm surge that emergency operations officials and National Hurricane Center forecasters spent extra time highlighting.
Depending on Michael’s location at landfall, areas as far south Cedar Key could see up to 12 feet of storm surge if it peaks during Wednesday’s high tide, with the Gulf of Mexico pushing 10 miles deep into the Apalachicola River to Hancock Bay.
“There’s a little wiggle room still on intensity at landfall but the track has been pretty straight forward in terms of forecasting,” said Chris Dolce, digital meteorologist for Weather.com, an IBM company. “It’s pretty sparsely populated in some of those areas, so that is a bit of good news.”
Tropical storm-force winds were expected to begin buffeting the coast at about 8 p.m. Tuesday.
By Wednesday night, Michael should be well inland and starting to make a sharp turn to the northwest as an area of low pressure picks it up, catapulting it through Georgia and the Carolinas as a tropical storm. Up to 10 inches of rain is possible in the Panhandle, but Michael’s expedited trip toward the Atlantic means a lower four to six inches in Georgia and the Carolinas.
Gov. Rick Scott, who declared a state of emergency in 35 counties and has assembled 2,500 National Guard troops to help with recovery, called Michael a “monstrous storm” that “keeps getting more dangerous.”
Leon County Emergency Operations Manager Kevin Peters said Michael is the “most extreme” storm to hit the area since 1894. State capital Tallahassee, which suffered widespread power outages after Category 1 Hurricane Hermine in 2016, is in Leon County.
“If you don’t follow warnings from officials, this storm could kill you,” Scott said.
Meanwhile, in Palm Beach County, first responders left Tuesday to assist with disaster recovery efforts, especially helping with communication.
“I think that it’s something we all have a responsibility to do,” said Maggie Steenburg, an emergency management specialist for Palm Beach County Fire Rescue. “We all live in the state of Florida and that’s we do do. We help our neighbors.”
Since 1851, nine Category 3 hurricanes have hit Florida’s Panhandle, including Eloise, 1995’s Opal and 2005’s Dennis.
No Category 4 storms with winds between 130 and 156 mph, or Category 5 hurricanes (157 mph and higher) have hit the Panhandle in the same period of record.
“Michael is going to be a very significant storm for the region and because of the storm surge, the small communities on the coast will get hit really hard,” said Phil Klotzbach, a hurricane researcher with Colorado State University. “I don’t see anything that could cause Michael to weaken except it hitting land.”
At the Panama City restaurant Victoria’s Last Bite, owner Vicki Cook planned to stay put through Hurricane Michael and was even waiting supply deliveries Tuesday morning.
She said she left for Hurricane Opal and couldn’t get back to her flooded house for several days.
“That’s when we decided would just stay,” she said. “The lines yesterday were ridiculous at the gas stations, but I think more people are planning on staying than leaving.”
About 120,000 residents throughout Panama City and Panama City Beach were in evacuation zones.
Michael, which became a tropical storm Sunday, rapidly gained strength during the 84-degree waters of the Gulf of Mexico. It was considered a medium-sized storm Tuesday afternoon with hurricane-force winds that extended out up to 35 miles from the center and tropical storm-force winds that extended out up to 185 miles.
In Palm Beach County, there is still a threat of rain from the extreme outer bands of the system.
While Michael sped toward the Panhandle, Tropical Storm Nadine formed as the 14th named storm this season in the far eastern Atlantic. Nadine is not expected to affect land or significantly strengthen but is notable for forming so far east this late in the year.
“It’s the latest on record to form in that area,” Klotzbach said. “It’s been a really odd season.”
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer Julius Whigham II contributed to this report.
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