Hurricane Michael gains strength, closes in on Florida Panhandle

FIRST ALERT Michael is now a hurricane expected to be major hurricane at landfall

Michael was a Category 1 storm, with sustained winds of up to 90 miles per hour (150 kph), and gaining strength after it skirted Cuba's western tip, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) said early on Tuesday.

Since the storm will spend two to three days over the Gulf, which has very warm water temperatures and favourable 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.

The hurricane, now about 200 miles south-southwest of the state, moved up to category three late on Tuesday as it headed for the Florida Panhandle, the strip of land on the Gulf of Mexico.

Michael is the seventh hurricane of the 2018 Atlantic hurricane season.

The storm is expected to make landfall on Wednesday.

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Hurricane Michael is poised to slam Florida's Panhandle by Wednesday afternoon, threatening risky storm surges to low-lying areas ill-equipped to handle them - and officials are urging people to get out of the way now. By that time, Michael is forecast to have winds of 125 miles per hour.

A hurricane warning has been issued for the Cuban province of Pinar del Rio and tropical storm warnings are in effect for the Cuban province of Isle of Youth and the Mexican coast from Tulum to Cabo Catoche.

Coastal storm surges of up to 12 feet (3.7 meters) are expected along the panhandle. Residents in these areas should follow all advice given by their local officials.

Michael underwent a period of "rapid intensification" on Sunday and Monday, its winds strengthening by more than 35 miles per hour.

Tropical storm warnings were issued for the coasts of Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.

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In North Carolina, still reeling from the destruction of Hurricane Florence last month, Gov. Roy Cooper warned that Michael could bring moderate storm surge, downed trees and power outages to his sodden state.

Tens of thousands of people have been ordered to evacuate in Wakulla, Gulf and Bay counties.

The storm is forecast to make landfall near Panama City, Florida, as a strong Category 3 on Wednesday 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.

All told, over 100 counties throughout multiple states have received emergency declarations, and this CNN clip shows the storm's frightening approach on radar.

A life-threatening storm surge has been predicted along Florida's Gulf Coast, along with unsafe winds and heavy rainfall.

Michael packed winds of 120 miles per hour (195 kilometers per hour) as it aimed for the Florida Panhandle, the finger-shaped strip of land on the Gulf of Mexico.

AccuWeather chief Joel Myers said Michael is forecast to roll through the region much more quickly than did the lingering Florence, which dumped up to 40 inches of rain in some areas.

In Gulf County alone, the first to begin ordering residents of low-lying areas to higher ground, mandatory evacuation notices encompassed an estimated 3,800 homes, said Jessica Sasich of the county's emergency operations centre.

In Georgia, Gov. Nathan Deal declared an emergency for 92 counties.

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