Tropical Storm Michael batters Caribbean, expected to hit U.S. Gulf Coast as a hurricane

Parts of Florida under state of emergency as Tropical Storm Michael approaches
WATCH ABOVE: Florida Governor Rick Scott declares a state of emergency in 26 counties as Tropical Storm Michael threatens to make landfall by Tuesday.

Tropical Storm Michael battered parts of Mexico and Cuba with powerful winds and drenching rains on Sunday as it churned in the Caribbean on a path that could see it slam into the U.S. Gulf Coast later this week with hurricane force, officials said.

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The storm was packing maximum sustained winds of 80 km/h as it moved north on a path between Cozumel in southeastern Mexico and the western tip of Cuba, the Miami-based U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) said.

Michael is forecast to be a hurricane on Monday night or Tuesday and approach the U.S. Gulf Coast on Wednesday, making landfall along Florida’s northern Panhandle region, it said.

The storm is then forecast to move northeast along the Atlantic Coast and batter the Carolinas, which are still recovering from Hurricane Florence last month. That hurricane killed at least 50 people and caused billions of dollars in damage.

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Outer bands from Michael are expected produce as much as 10 centimetres of rain through Tuesday in the Florida Keys, one of several areas in the state devastated by Hurricane Irma last year.

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Florida Governor Rick Scott issued an order for a state of emergency for 26 counties in the Florida Panhandle and the Big Bend area Sunday.

Governor Rick Scott will issue an executive order declaring a state of emergency in the Florida Panhandle and Big Bend as the state braces for the storm, his office said on Sunday. The declaration will free up resources for storm preparation.

“This storm will be life-threatening and extremely dangerous,” Scott said after receiving a briefing at the State Emergency Operations Center.

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Scott also warned that the tropical storm could become a Category 2 hurricane with winds up to 160 km/h by the time it makes landfall in Florida.

In Cuba on Sunday, Michael was expected to dump as much as 30 cm of rain in western parts of the island.

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“This rainfall could lead to life-threatening flash floods and mudslides in areas of mountainous terrain,” the NHC said.

The Commodity Weather Group said on Sunday some oil rigs in the area may be evacuated as a precaution, which may slow down operations but was not likely cause much interruption.

The Gulf of Mexico is home to 17 per cent of U.S. crude oil and five per cent of natural gas output daily, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

More than 45 per cent of the nation’s refining capacity is located along the U.S. Gulf Coast, which also is home to 51 per cent of total U.S. natural gas processing capability.

-With files from The Associated Press