MIAMI — A tropical weather system rapidly strengthened into Hurricane Michael off Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, and forecasters said it was moving Monday into the Gulf of Mexico where warm waters would continue to fuel its development.
Michael could strengthen into a major hurricane with winds topping 111 mph by Tuesday night before an expected strike on Florida’s Panhandle or Big Bend, according to the National Hurricane Center.
By 11 a.m. Monday, Michael’s top sustained winds were around 75 mph.
The storm was centered about 50 miles off the western tip of Cuba, and about 140 miles east-northeast of Cozumel, Mexico. It was moving north around 7 mph.
Since the storm will spend two to three days over the Gulf, which has very warm water temperatures and favorable atmospheric conditions, “there is a real possibility that Michael will strengthen to a major hurricane before landfall,” Robbie Berg, a hurricane specialist at the Miami-based storm forecasting hub, wrote in an advisory.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott issued an order for a state of emergency for 26 counties to rush preparations in the Panhandle and the Big Bend area, freeing up resources and activating 500 members of the Florida National Guard.
“This storm will be life-threatening and extremely dangerous,” Scott said Sunday after receiving a briefing at the State Emergency Operations Center. He warned that storm surge could affect areas of Florida not in the storm’s direct path.
Forecasters advised residents along the northeastern and central U.S. Gulf Coast to monitor the storm’s progress.
Florida’s capital city of Tallahassee, which is in the Panhandle, opened two locations Sunday where residents could get sandbags to prepare for flooding.
“While the impacts are still uncertain, our area could experience increased wind activity and heavy rainfall, which could cause localized flooding and downed trees,” Tallahassee officials said in a statement.
Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, who is the Democratic nominee for governor, had planned to campaign in South Florida on Monday and Tuesday, but he said he would return to Tallahassee to help with storm preparations.
The city of Pensacola tweeted to residents, “Be sure you have your emergency plan in place.”
Michael was lashing western Cuba late Monday morning with heavy rains and strong winds, according to the hurricane center. Forecasters warned that the storm could produce up to a foot (30 centimeters) of rain in western Cuba, potentially triggering flash floods and mudslides in mountainous areas.