MIAMI -- Hurricane Michael mushroomed into a powerful Category 3 storm Tuesday evening as it raced toward Florida's Gulf Coast, packing a dangerous surge threatening to pound hundreds of miles of shoreline.
In a 5 p.m. EDT update, National Hurricane Center forecasters said Michael's maximum winds have reached 120 mph and could continue to increase slightly as it crosses the Gulf of Mexico headed for the famed white sand beaches of the Panhandle. The storm was located about 295 miles south of Panama City, the center of the potential landfall zone, and moving north at 12 mph. It's now expected to make landfall Wednesday afternoon, but increasing winds, pounding surf and rains could reach parts of the coast Tuesday night.
Hurricane and storm surge warnings covered much of the Gulf Coast, as far south as Tampa. Tropical storms warnings and watches were also extended to the U.S. east coast, from Fernandina Beach, just north of Jacksonville, to North Carolina, with heavy rain and wind expected to carve a dangerous path inland. In the Carolinas, areas still digging out from flooding unleashed by a slow-moving Hurricane Florence last month could see heavy rain again.
Tuesday afternoon, forecasters continued to call for the heaviest storm surge near the Big Bend, with areas in red projected to get nine feet or more and orange zones expected to get six feet or more. Source: National Hurricane Center.
Forecasters and emergency managers continued to warn that Michael's storm surge remains the most serious coastal threat, since the bend in the shoreline traps powerful waves. Water levels were 1 1/2 to 2 feet above normal along parts of the coast Tuesday with the storm was more than 300 miles away, National Hurricane Center storm surge chief Jamie Rhome said. Michael could also near the coast on a rising tide, which could compound problems.
Conditions could be made worse by the frayed coastline, which is carved with bays, coves and rivers that can easily channel water further inland, said hurricane center director Ken Graham. Areas like St. Marks, Panacea and Ochlockonee Bay, tiny communities surrounded by a wilderness of water, swamp and pine sandhills, are particularly vulnerable, he said.
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"The water actually goes right over these barrier islands and starts to go into the bays and inland," he said. "It could push inland 10 to 15 miles up rivers."
The highest surge could reach 13 feet, near Mexican Beach. But pounding surge is expected to hammer much of the coast, including the tiny island of Cedar Key, where a no-name hurricane in 1896 pushed ashore a fatal 10-foot storm surge that killed 100. The amount and location all depend on the storm's track and could shift as the storm wobbles.
In repeated briefings through the day, Gov. Rick Scott continued to urge residents in the storm's path to heed evacuation orders and warnings about the dangerous surge.
"The state has experienced winds before like this and rain like this. The storm surge could be historic," he said.