Hurricane Michael Upgraded to a Category 3 Storm – Millions at Risk
A satellite picture of a hurricane by NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center (Photo: NOAA)

Up to half a million Florida residents were warned on Tuesday to get out of harm's way as Hurricane Michael sped over the Gulf of Mexico toward the northwestern part of the state, bringing fierce winds, torrential rain and life-threatening coastal floods.

Authorities told residents and tourists in at least 20 Florida counties to evacuate coastal areas along the 322 km long Panhandle and the adjacent Big Bend region.

The storm caused widespread destruction in Central America over the weekend, where at least 13 people have been reported dead.

The storm has strengthened over the past 24 hours and could be the strongest storm to ever hit the state of Florida. Hurricane Florence took five days to hit land but Michael developed into a hurricane on Monday, and by Tuesday, more than 180,000 people were under mandatory evacuation orders.

"Hurricane Michael has been taking advantage of warm sea surface temperatures and lowering wind shear as it moves across the Gulf of Mexico, and that's meant a lot of strengthening in a short period of time," says The Weather Network's meteorologist Caroline Floyd.

As of Tuesday afternoon, Hurricane Michael was a Category 3 storm on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, with maximum sustained winds near 195 km/h, and higher gusts. But, by the evening storm watchers were warning that it could land as a near Category 4 storm with wind speeds at 210 km/hour.

"Hurricane Michael is a monster storm and it keeps getting more dangerous," Florida Governor Rick Scott told a news conference on Tuesday. "The time to prepare is now." Scott declared a state of emergency in 35 counties along the Panhandle and Florida's Big Bend regions, mostly rural areas known for small tourist cities, beaches and wildlife reserves, and the state capital, Tallahassee.

Michael could dump up to 30 centimetres of rain over some Panhandle communities, while 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.