Michael could be a Category 4 hurricane when it hits Florida, forecasters warn

Hurricane Michael could strengthen to a Category 4 storm by the time it makes landfall in the Florida Panhandle on Wednesday, forecasters warned late Tuesday.

Officials worried residents are ignoring evacuation orders

Krystal Day, of Homosassa, Fla., leads a sandbag assembly line at the Old Port Cove Restaurant on Tuesday in preparation for Hurricane Michael. (Chris O'Meara/Associated Press)

Hurricane Michael could strengthen to a Category 4 storm by the time it makes landfall in the Florida Panhandle on Wednesday, forecasters warned late Tuesday.

Drawing energy from the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico with every passing hour, the storm already packed 195 km/h winds on Tuesday night, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said. It was expected to blow ashore around midday Wednesday near Panama City Beach, along a lightly populated stretch of fishing villages and white-sand spring-break beaches.

While last month's storm Florence took five days between the time it turned into a hurricane and the moment it rolled into the Carolinas, Michael gave Florida what amounted to two days' notice. It developed into a hurricane on Monday, and by Tuesday, more than 180,000 people were under mandatory evacuation orders.

This satellite image from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows Hurricane Michael as it approached Florida on Tuesday. (NOAA/EPA-EFE)

"We don't know if it's going to wipe out our house or not," Jason McDonald, of Panama City, said as he and his wife drove north into Alabama with their two children, ages 5 and 7. "We want to get them out of the way."

Coastal residents rushed to board up their homes and sandbag their properties against the hurricane, which was heading north at 19 km/h.

As of 8 p.m. ET, Michael, which Florida Gov. Rick Scott called a "monstrous hurricane," was about 410 kilometres south of Panama City Beach. Its winds had increased to 195 km/h.

But despite the storm's growing strength, some officials were especially worried by what they weren't seeing — a rush of evacuees.

"I am not seeing the level of traffic on the roadways that I would expect when we've called for the evacuation of 75 per cent of this county," Bay County Sheriff Tommy Ford said.

Aja Kemp, 36, planned to ride out the storm in her mobile home in Crawfordville, Fla. She worked all night stocking shelves at a big-box store that was closing later Tuesday, then got to work securing her yard.

Kemp said the bill totalled over $800 US when she and her family fled Hurricane Irma's uncertain path last year.

"I just can't bring myself to spend that much money," she said. "We've got supplies to last us a week. Plenty of water. I made sure we've got clean clothes. We got everything tied down."

A woman jogs with a dog as waves splash at the seafront in Havana on Tuesday as Hurricane Michael passed Cuba. (Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters)

In the dangerously exposed coastal town of Apalachicola, population 2,500, Sally Crown planned to go home and hunker down with her two dogs.

"We've been through this before," she said. "This might be really bad and serious. But in my experience, it's always blown way out of proportion."

Forecasters said parts of Florida's marshy, lightly populated Big Bend area — the crook of Florida's elbow — could see up to four metres of storm surge.

In Tallahassee, the state's capital, people rushed to fill their gas tanks and grab supplies. Many gas stations in the city had run out of fuel.

Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, Florida's Democratic nominee for governor, helped people fill sandbags.

Storm fatigue for Carolinas, Virginia

Michael could dump up to 30 centimetres of rain over some Panhandle communities before it sweeps through the Southeast and goes back out to sea by way of the mid-Atlantic states over the next few days.

Forecasters said it could bring eight to 15 centimetres of rain to Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia, triggering flash flooding in a corner of the country still recovering from Hurricane Florence.

"I know people are fatigued from Florence, but don't let this storm catch you with your guard down," North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said, adding, "A number of homes have rooftop tarps that could be damaged or blown away with this wind."

People line up for gasoline outside Tallahassee, Fla., on Monday to prepare for Hurricane Michael. (Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images)