Strengthening hurricane closes in on Florida Panhandle

As a result, the northeastern Gulf Coast is undergoing mandatory evacuations - that includes the Florida Panhandle (stretching into Big Bend) as well as parts of southeast Alabama and southern Georgia.

"Michael will continue to pick up speed as it moves into the very warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico", News 6 meteorologist Troy Bridges said.

Residents of Florida's Panhandle frantically filled sandbags, boarded up homes and secured boats Monday as they anxiously awaited Hurricane Michael, which forecasters warned could smash into the state's Gulf Coast as a risky major hurricane within days.

The U.S. Geological Service says Hurricane Michael will likely cause beach erosion along three-quarters of the Florida's Panhandle, wiping away sand right up to the dunes. It strengthened to a Category 3 storm late Tuesday afternoon.

Michael is expected to sweep up the East Coast, and tropical storm-force winds were projected to reach the state Thursday, according to the center's projections.

A fast and furious Hurricane Michael sped toward the Florida Panhandle on Tuesday with 110 miles per hour winds and a potential storm surge of 12 feet, giving tens of thousands of people precious little time to get out or board up.

Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum says the rapid rise of Hurricane Michael led city officials to hold a "sobering" discussion about the potential impact the storm will have on the area.

A storm surge watch is in effect for Anclote River in Florida to Anna Maria Island in Florida, including Tampa Bay.

"Guess what? That's today", Graham said. Forecasters predict the storm will bring torrential rains and winds of upwards of 120 miles per hour.

It "poses a deadly threat and as it grows stronger, we can expect it make landfall as a major Category 3 storm", said Scott, warning that it "could bring total devastation to parts of our state, especially in the panhandle".

Either way, residents should "be prepared like you would with any approaching storm", he said. A Category 3 storm has sustained winds of 111-129 miles per hour. "That means the water will come miles in shore and could easily be over the roofs of houses", Scott said.

The storm's intensity is being fed by warm sea surface temperatures and a lack of upper-level windshear, forecasters said.

Snapper Tams, a passenger on the Royal Caribbean ship, posted video footage of stormy seas, heavy rain, and harsh winds near the ship.

Interested in Hurricane Michael?

That's when Maryland could see the first remnants of the storm.

Floridians scurried to prepare after Gov. Rick Scott extended a state of emergency to 35 counties and activated 1,250 National Guardsmen for hurricane duty.

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

Hurricane Michael is gaining strength as it lashes Cuba's western tip and lumbers northward toward the U.S.

"I've been talking to mayors, to county commissioners, I think people are taking this serious", Scott said. Severe storm surge is a possibility over a large portion of the Florida panhandle, with the highest surge expected to the right of the storm's track. Up to four inches (10 centimeters) were expected to fall through Tuesday.

The governor has declared states of emergency for Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton, Holmes, Washington, Bay, Jackson, Calhoun, Gulf, Gadsden, Liberty, Franklin, Leon, Wakulla, Jefferson, Madison, Taylor, Hamilton, Suwannee, Lafayette, Dixie, Columbia, Gilchrist, Levy, Citrus, Pasco, Hernando, Pinellas, Hillsborough, Manatee, Alachua, Union, Bradford and Baker counties.

Vanessa Coleman