Florida, Alabama brace for 'monstrous' Hurricane Michael

Residents of Florida's panhandle frantically filled sandbags, boarded up homes and secured boats in harbours Monday as they anxiously awaited Hurricane Michael, an approaching storm forecasters warned could smash into the northeast Gulf Coast within days.

'We're looking at a significant storm with significant impact,' says panhandle city mayor

Hurricane Michael is seen as it moves over the Gulf of Mexico in this satellite image taken Monday. (NOAA/Reuters)

Residents of Florida's Panhandle frantically filled sandbags, boarded up homes and secured boats in harbours Monday as they anxiously awaited Hurricane Michael, an approaching storm forecasters warned could smash into the northeast Gulf Coast within days.

Fuelled by warm tropical waters, fast-strengthening Michael could gain major hurricane status with winds topping 179 km/h before its anticipated landfall Wednesday on the Panhandle or Big Bend area of Florida, forecasters have warned.

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

Scott 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. Scott also said Monday afternoon that state health officials are reaching out to hospitals and nursing homes to be prepared. Following Hurricane Irma last year, 14 people died when a South Florida nursing home lost power and air conditioning.

Mandatory evacuation orders

Of the elderly and infirm patients, Scott had a blunt message for their caregivers: "If you're responsible for a patient, you're responsible for the patient. Take care of them."

In the small panhandle 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 there in decades.

Rob Docko, a resident of Panama City, Fla., secures his boat at the St. Andrews Marina on Sunday in preparation for Hurricane Michael. (Patti Blake/News Herald/Associated Press)

"We're looking at a significant storm with significant impact, possibly greater than I've seen in my 59 years of life," he said of the city, which sits on the shore of Apalachicola Bay, an inlet to the Gulf of Mexico famed for producing about 90 per cent of Florida's oysters.

By Monday evening, lines had formed at gas stations and grocery stories as people sought emergency supplies even as the anticipated evacuations would be intensifying in coming hours. Mandatory evacuation orders were issued for the barrier islands, mobile homes and low-lying coastal areas in Gulf, Wakulla and Bay counties.

Winds too strong for shelters

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

"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's curvy Big Bend could see up to 3.7 metres of storm surge, while Michael also could dump up to 30 centimetres of rain over some panhandle communities as it moves inland, forecasters said.

By 11 p.m. ET Monday, Michael's top sustained winds had risen some to 144 km/h as it headed north at 19 km/h. The storm was centred about 724 kilometres south of Apalachicola. Hurricane-force winds extended outward up to 56 kilometres from the core and tropical-storm-force winds out 280 kilometres.

30 cm of rain possible in Cuba

Michael was lashing western Cuba on Monday with heavy rains and strong winds. Forecasters warned that the storm could produce up to 30 centimetres of rain in western Cuba, potentially triggering flash floods and mudslides in mountainous areas.

Since the storm will spend two to three days over 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," said Robbie Berg, a hurricane specialist at the Miami-based storm forecasting hub.

Residents of Lynn Haven, Fla., fill sand bags at the Lynn Haven Sports Complex on Monday. (Patti Blake/News Herald/Associated Press)

A large mound of sand in Tallahassee was whittled down to a small pile within hours Monday as residents filled sandbags to prepare for potential flooding. A couple of breweries in the city offered free filtered water to anyone bringing in jugs or other containers.

Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, Florida's Democratic nominee for governor, had planned to campaign in South Florida on Monday and Tuesday, but instead threw himself into helping his city's residents fill sandbags and get their storm preparations completed.

'Life and safety'

"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."

Two years ago, Hurricane Hermine knocked out power for days in Tallahassee and caused widespread flooding as it came up through the Gulf Coast.

Ann Beaver was among the three-quarters of city residents who lost power after that storm. She was preparing Monday for a similar experience.

Business owners in Panama City were busy boarding up windows Monday as the storm approached. (Patti Blake/Associated Press)

"I don't want to lose everything in the freezer, but it is what is," said Beaver as she loaded sandbags into her family's pickup truck.

Farther west along Florida's panhandle, the city of Pensacola tweeted to residents, "Be sure you have your emergency plan in place."

On the panhandle, Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan warned residents during a news conference Monday evening that if they stay, first responders won't be able to reach them during the storm or immediately after.

"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.