MIAMI (CBSMiami/AP) — Hurricane Michael is intensifying as it moves through the Gulf of Mexico and closer to the US coastline. Storm surge and hurricane warnings are in effect for the Florida panhandle, where residents are preparing for the worst.
Mandatory evacuation orders went into effect Tuesday morning for some 120,000 people in Panama City Beach and across other low-lying parts of the coast as Hurricane Michael approaches.
Parts of Florida’s marshy, lightly populated Big Bend area could see up to 12 feet of storm surge, while Michael also could dump up to a foot of rain over some Panhandle communities as it moves inland, forecasters said.
“People need to start leaving now,” Sheriff Tommy Ford told an emergency meeting Monday night. He said people will “not be dragged out of their homes,” but anyone who stays behind will be on their own once the storm hits.
“You cannot hide from storm surge,” Governor Rick Scott said Tuesday. “This storm is deadly. Do not take a chance.”
Drawing energy from the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico with every passing hour, the storm was expected to blow ashore around midday Wednesday near Panama City Beach, along a lightly populated stretch of fishing villages and white-sand spring-break beaches.
Gov. Rick Scott and electric utilities say they are poised for a quick response to Hurricane Michael, which officials say could be the strongest storm to hit the Panhandle in decades.
As rains from the powerful storm started to reach the Panhandle on Tuesday afternoon, about 15,000 workers lined up by Gulf Power, Duke Energy Florida, Florida Power & Light and public utilities have been positioned to respond to anticipated widespread outages.
The companies and the Florida Municipal Electric Association also reported having at least 2,000 more workers from companies throughout the South and as far away as Texas, Nebraska and Indiana.
Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, the Democratic candidate for governor, said his city’s utility has called in “six times” its normal staffing through mutual-aid agreements with other utilities.
“Folks are ready from the government side, but we need our citizens to also be ready,” said Gillum.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott warned it was a “monstrous hurricane,” and his Democratic opponent for the Senate, Sen. Bill Nelson, said a “wall of water” could cause destruction along the Panhandle.
“Don’t think that you can ride this out if you’re in a low-lying area,” Nelson said on CNN.
Scott declared a state of emergency for 35 Florida counties, from the Panhandle to Tampa Bay, activated 2,500 members of the Florida National Guard and waived tolls to encourage evacuations.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has 150 law enforcement officers positioned for search-and-rescue missions and the Florida Highway Patrol has 350 troopers in the region on 12-hour shifts as a response to the storm.
Gov. Scott also warned caregivers at north Florida hospitals and nursing homes to do all possible to assure the safety of the elderly and infirm. Following Hurricane Irma last year, 14 people died when a South Florida nursing home lost power and air conditioning.
“If you’re responsible for a patient, you’re responsible for the patient. Take care of them,” he said.
In Tallahassee, people lined up at gas stations and emptied shelves of water, bread, and other supplies at grocery stores.
The AAA Auto Group reported that Michael isn’t expected to cause a “significant” spike in pump prices as its path remains east of most energy infrastructure such as oil rigs and refineries. But “long lines at gas stations in the Panhandle” have left at least some stations empty as fuel trucks rush to meet demand.
“Gasoline outages in the Panhandle are spotty, but not widespread,” said AAA spokesman Mark Jenkins. “There continues to be plenty of fuel supply in the state, but getting a tanker truck to a gas station — before it runs out of fuel — can be a challenge during a time of such high demand.”
Scott dismissed reports of “widespread” fuel outages, while appearing Tuesday afternoon at the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office in Eastpoint.
“The state Emergency Response Team has been holding regular calls with the fuel industry and ports in Florida to ensure they can get gas to the area safely,” Scott said. “I was just on a call with them, and they’re working hard to make sure we keep getting gas in the state.”
Fuel deliveries will be suspended when winds reach 45 mph.
Tuesday morning, Angel Jackson found a gas station which had actually had gas and waited in line to fill up. After topping off, Jackson said the next item on her list was water – since many stores had already sold out of the bottled variety.
“I’m a little nervous about my room because I hope nothing breaks through the window,” said Florida State student Aimee Burnett.
Some of her fellow students packed up Monday and a few more left Tuesday morning, most at the urging of their parents.
“They suggested that I leave, so I decided that I’ll be heading over there Friday anyway, so I might as well have an early visit,” said Gabriel Perry.
Classes at FSU and FAMU have been canceled for the week and will resume next Monday. However, the universities’ dorms and dining areas will remain open for those who ride out the storm.
Tallahassee International Airport announced that flights would be suspended Wednesday, with commercial flights expected to resume at 8 a.m. Thursday.
Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan bluntly advised residents choosing to ride it out that first-responders won’t be able to reach them while Michael smashes into the coast.
“If you decide to stay in your home and a tree falls on your house or the storm surge catches you and you’re now calling for help, there’s no one that can respond to help you,” Morgan said at a news conference.
In the small Panhandle city of Apalachicola, Mayor Van Johnson Sr. said the 2,300 residents were frantically preparing for what could be a strike unlike any seen there in decades. Many filled sandbags and boarded up homes and lined up to buy gas and groceries before leaving town.
“We’re looking at a significant storm with significant impact, possibly greater than I’ve seen in my 59 years of life,” Johnson said of his city on the shore of Apalachicola Bay, where about 90 percent of Florida’s oysters are harvested.
There will be no shelters open in Wakulla County, the sheriff’s office warned on Facebook, because they are rated safe only for hurricanes with top sustained winds below 111 mph. With Michael’s winds projected to be even stronger, residents were urged to evacuate inland.
“This storm has the potential to be a historic storm, please take heed,” the sheriff’s office said in the post.
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam noted the Florida Forest Service has three “chainsaw strike teams” ready to respond, along with a team mobilizing to support urban search-and-rescue operations.
Putnam’s department also reported more than 500,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture meals, and at least 20 truckloads of ice, would be available for shelters after the storm.
(© Copyright 2018 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press and The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.)