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Hurricane Michael strengthens as it closes in on Florida Panhandle, giving residents hours to prepare or flee

Thousands of people across a vast stretch of the Gulf Coast rushed to board up their homes and businesses Tuesday as Hurricane Michael strengthened into a Category 3 storm, threatening Florida’s Panhandle with powerful winds, life-threatening storm surge and torrential rain.

At its current strength, Michael would be the most powerful storm to hit the U.S. mainland this year.

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Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center in Miami warned late Tuesday that the storm would intensify to a Category 4, with winds topping 130 mph, before making landfall.

“#HurricaneMichael will be the strongest storm to impact portions of Florida in more than 100 years,” Florida’s State Emergency Response Team posted on Twitter on Tuesday night. “DO NOT IGNORE #EVACUATION ORDERS.”

Earlier, Florida Gov. Rick Scott also had words of warning. “Let me be clear: Hurricane Michael is a monstrous storm, and the forecast keeps getting more dangerous,” he said Tuesday at a news conference at the Citrus County Emergency Operations Center in Lecanto. “The time to prepare is right now.… If you don’t follow warnings from officials, this storm could kill you.”

In Panama City, a coastal town that is home to about 37,000 people and two military bases, many homes were empty and boarded up. Downtown, almost all businesses — ice cream and coffee shops, craft beer emporiums and seafood restaurants, pharmacies and law firms — were shuttered.

Still, many residents had not left, flouting mandatory evacuation orders in effect in low-lying areas.

Jessica Langston, 78, a retired electronic technician in Panama City who lives alone in a one-story home with a view of St. Andrew Bay, tried to reassure her daughter in Miami via cellphone that she would be OK.

“I’m going to stay put,” she said firmly as she swayed in a white pergola swing under a cluster of live oaks and gazed at the waves gently lapping the shore.

Not only is her home separated from the ocean by a two-lane highway, she said, but it sits atop an Indian mound and is buffered by Shell Island, a 700-acre barrier island across the bay.

Her windows were boarded up and her trees freshly trimmed, and she had already cooked and stockpiled food: cheese tamales, squash soup and seven-bean soup with sausage. A 96-year-old neighbor is staying too, and Langston planned to check on him.

“I’m blessed I have people who care, but I’m here because I want to be,” she said. “This is home and there are people here who need me.”

Haskel Johnson, from left, Daniel Tippett, Jennifer Tippett and Nobuko Johnson fill sandbags in Lynn Haven, Fla., on Monday.
Haskel Johnson, from left, Daniel Tippett, Jennifer Tippett and Nobuko Johnson fill sandbags in Lynn Haven, Fla., on Monday. (Patti Blake / News Herald)

On Tuesday evening, Michael was about 255 miles south of Panama City, moving north with maximum sustained winds of 125 mph.

A hurricane warning was in effect from the Alabama border to the Suwannee River mouth in Florida, and a storm surge warning was in effect from Florida’s Okaloosa-Walton county line to the Anclote River near Tampa.

Scott had already declared a state of emergency for more than 35 counties and activated 2,500 Florida National Guard troops. On Tuesday, President Trump signed a pre-landfall disaster declaration giving the region access to federal resources and assistance.

Trump urged Floridians to prepare for Michael, which he warned could be more powerful than Hurricane Florence, the slow-moving Category 1 hurricane that inundated the Carolinas with rain last month. Michael intensified rapidly over 24 hours Sunday and Monday, growing from a tropical storm with sustained winds of 40 mph to a Category 1 hurricane with sustained winds of 75 mph.

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“Good news is, the folks in the Pan Handle can take care of anything. @FEMA and First Responders are ready - be prepared!” Trump said in a Twitter post.

The National Hurricane Center expects Michael to keep strengthening as it moves north across the eastern Gulf of Mexico overnight. It is forecast to move inland over the Florida Panhandle or the state’s Big Bend area on Wednesday, then weaken as it moves northeast across the southeastern United States on Wednesday night and Thursday.

The hurricane center warned coastal residents that a combination of a dangerous storm surge and high tide could cause normally dry areas to be flooded. Storm surges along the Florida coast could be as high as 12 feet from Indian Pass to Cedar Key.

Michael is expected to lash coastal areas of Florida, Alabama and Georgia with as much as 12 inches of rain. Farther inland, damaging winds, torrential rain and life-threatening flash floods are forecast for parts of Georgia and Alabama.

The last big storm to strike this part of the Gulf Coast was Hurricane Hermine, which in 2016 left hundreds of thousands of residents — including more than 80% of residents of the state capital, Tallahassee — without electricity.

About 10 miles to the west of Panama City in the beach resort town of Panama City Beach, “sno-ball” shacks, karaoke bars, henna tattoo stores, saloons, a miniature golf course and an oyster pub were shuttered along the main strip.

“THANKS MICHAEL FOR RUININ’ OUR VACATION,” someone had spray-painted on plywood boards covering windows outside the Tropix beach shop on Front Beach Road.

A few blocks from the ocean, John Greathouse, an 81-year-old retiree who has lived in his two-story home on Bay Avenue for 25 years, said he was confident it would survive Michael.

After all, he had made it through Hurricane Opal, a powerful Category 3 hurricane that made landfall at Pensacola Beach in 1995.

“I’m staying,” he said as he ambled along his quiet residential street Tuesday afternoon. “This is the highest point on Panama City Beach.”

Exhausted after getting up at 4 a.m. to get gas, Greathouse had already installed shutters on his front and rear windows. But he still had to take his porch swing down and move his potted plants inside.

As some neighbors piled clothes and pets into their cars; others were leaning toward staying.

“I’m pretty freaked out,” Denese Goldberg, a 65-year-old retired legal secretary, said as she sat in her neighbors’ carport a few blocks from the ocean playing poker with quarters.

Goldberg moved to Panama City Beach from Monroe, Ga., 18 months ago and had never been through a hurricane. She said if Michael intensified, she might evacuate. But for now, she planned to ride it out with her four cats in her neighbors’ brick home.

“We’re just gonna judge it as it comes,” said the neighbor, Marion Staples. “Sometimes they say it’s terrible and it turns out to be nothing.”

Bobby Smith boards up the windows at Jani's Ceramics in Panama City, Fla., on Monday in preparation for Hurricane Michael.
Bobby Smith boards up the windows at Jani's Ceramics in Panama City, Fla., on Monday in preparation for Hurricane Michael. (Patti Blake / News Herald)

8:25 p.m.: This article was updated throughout with staff reporting.

2:40 p.m.: This article was updated to reflect the hurricane upgrading to a Category 3 hurricane.

12:15 p.m.: This article was updated with the hurricane closing in on the Florida Panhandle.

5:30 a.m.: This article was updated with Michael growing into a Category 2 hurricane.

This article was originally published at 2:50 a.m.

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