Hurricane Michael strengthens into Category 3 as it sets sights on Florida

Click to play video: 'Cuba’s western coast lashed by Hurricane Michael'
Cuba’s western coast lashed by Hurricane Michael
WATCH ABOVE: Cuba's western coast lashed by Hurricane Michael – Oct 9, 2018

Hurricane Michael is now a Category 3 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, the U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) said on Tuesday, adding that heavy rainfall is expected along the northeastern Gulf Coast.

Michael was located about 270 miles (435 km) south-southwest of Apalachicola, Florida, with maximum sustained winds of 120 miles per hour (195 km per hour), the Miami-based forecaster said.

The center of Michael will move across the eastern Gulf of Mexico through Tuesday night, NHC said.

“Michael is forecast to be a major hurricane at landfall in Florida.”

WATCH: Florida Panhandle braces for Hurricane Michael

Click to play video: 'Florida Panhandle braces for Hurricane Michael'
Florida Panhandle braces for Hurricane Michael
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Tens of thousands of people have been ordered to evacuate in Wakulla, Gulf and Bay counties. Michael could be a Category 3 storm when it makes landfall, which is expected on Wednesday, becoming the most powerful storm to strike the panhandle in at least a decade.

“For those considering evacuation, I can’t stress strongly enough the importance of leaving as early as possible,” Bay County Sheriff Tommy Ford said on Facebook. “Evacuation routes can quickly turn into traffic nightmares. Please evacuate now.”

WATCH: Hurricane Michael upgraded to a Category 2 storm as it heads for Florida Panhandle 
Click to play video: 'Hurricane Michael upgraded to Category 2 storm'
Hurricane Michael upgraded to Category 2 storm

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

Coastal storm surges of up to 3.7 metres are expected along the panhandle. As much as a 30 cm of rain is forecast across Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, the center reported.

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The NHC warned that both could trigger deadly flooding and that residents within the hurricane warning zone should also “prepare for life-threatening winds.”

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Florida Governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in 35 counties along the panhandle and Florida’s Big Bend regions. About 1,250 National Guard soldiers were aiding the process and more than 4,000 troops placed on standby, Scott tweeted.

State offices, schools and universities were to close on Tuesday through the end of the week in panhandle counties. Lines at gasoline stations were growing as people prepared to leave. Those who planned to stay emptied grocery store shelves of water and other supplies throughout the day on Monday.

In neighbouring Alabama, Governor Kay Ivey declared an emergency for the entire state on Monday, anticipating wind damage, heavy rains and power outages.

Hurricane Michael would be the first major hurricane to hit the panhandle since Hurricane Dennis in 2005, which made landfall near Pensacola, according to hurricane center data.

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Torrential downpours and flash-flooding over the weekend caused 13 deaths in Central America after Michael formed off the coast of northern Honduras.

After striking Florida, Michael is forecast to move up the east coast on Wednesday and Thursday, plowing through the Carolinas, still recovering from Hurricane Florence last month.

Energy companies halted nearly a fifth of Gulf of Mexico oil production and evacuated personnel from 10 platforms on Monday.

The Gulf of Mexico produces 17 per cent of daily U.S. crude oil output and 5 per cent of daily natural gas output, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

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