Michael could become first Category 4 to make landfall at Florida Panhandle

Wake, Durham, Johnston and other counties were put under Flash Flood Watch as Hurricane Michael looms toward land.

Posted Updated

Alfred Charles, online managing editor,
Deborah Strange, digital journalist
RALEIGH, N.C. — The latest forecast update from the National Hurricane Center has Michael set to come ashore around the Florida Panhandle as a Category 3 storm as officials in North Carolina are preparing for soaking rains and gusty winds that could uproot trees and knock down power lines around the Triangle.
Top Headlines
  • A Tropical Storm Watch has been issued for Cumberland, Edgecombe, Harnett, Hoke, Johnston, Sampson, Wayne and Wilson counties.
  • Hurricane Michael is now a Category 3 storm with maximum sustained winds at 125 mph.
  • Numerous counties, including Wake, Johnston and Durham, will be under a Flash Flood Watch starting at 6 a.m. Thursday.
  • Gov. Roy Cooper said storm weary residents should prepare for Michael, which could bring an 8-12 foot storm surge to low-lying areas.
  • The storm will track up through Florida and Georgia before moving into North Carolina, bringing 3-6 inches of rain along with the threat of flooding and wind gusts between 40-50 mph.

WRAL meteorologist Mike Maze said Michael is rapidly growing in intensity and could strengthen into a Category 4 storm, making it the first Category 4 hurricane to make landfall in the Florida Panhandle.

"If it keeps that intensity at landfall, it would be the first time in recorded history that the Panhandle has seen a Category 4 storm make landfall," he said. "This is quite significant."

WRAL Chief Meteorologist Greg Fishel said the North Carolina will be getting "hammered" by heavy rain between 2 and 8 p.m. Thursday.

Maze said that while Michael won't have the same impact on North Carolina as Hurricane Florence did, it can still produce heavy rains and gusts.

Areas have a potential of seeing 3 to 6 inches of rainfall, and streets could be flooded in areas with heavier rainfall, he said.

The Carolinas can see tropical-storm force winds Thursday afternoon, and the storm system is projected to leave land by Friday morning, Maze said.

WRAL meteorologist Elizabeth Gardner said Tuesday that the storm could cause power outages as its bands of rain and strong winds move into the Triangle.

"It's not going to be a great day to be outside on Thursday by any means," she said. "Do be prepared for scattered power outages and flooding."

WRAL meteorologist Aimee Wilmoth said Triangle residents could expect:

  • Strong winds with the highest winds occurring: Thursday-Thursday night (40-50 mph gusts), weak trees knocked down.
  • Localized Flash Flooding: Overnight Wednesday thru Thursday, 3-6" possible.
  • River Flooding: Friday thru Saturday, Biggest threat will be the sandhills and coastal plain.
  • Tornadoes: Thursday, Isolated southeast of the Triangle.
  • Power Outages: Thursday-Thursday night, isolated outages possible
This media cannot be viewed right now.

The storm is expected to make landfall around midday Wednesday and it will tack north into central North Carolina, Gardner said, adding that parts of the state, including the Triangle, could see tropical force winds.

A look at Hurricane Michael's track as of Tuesday.

"Tropical Storm winds are at or above 39 miles per hour," she said.

Triangle residents will see rain mid-to-late day Wednesday, "and definitely into the day on Thursday," Gardner said.

After the storm moves offshore, Gardner said it will be cooler in the Triangle with a high temperature on Friday expected to to out around 73 degrees before dipping to 52 for the low.

"Once the storm moves out, it's going to be a pretty nice weekend for us," Gardner said.

At a 10:30 a.m. press conference, Cooper said he knows state residents are tired after having experienced Florence just last month. But he said North Carolinians should take precautions.

"I know people are fatigued from Florence but don't let this storm catch you with your guard down," he said. "I urge hurricane-weary North Carolinians to turn their attention to Hurricane Michael. I know you don't want to have to think about another storm, but we have to."

Florida preps for storm

Michael gained new strength over warm tropical waters amid fears it would swiftly intensify into a major hurricane before striking Florida's northeast Gulf Coast, where frantic coastal dwellers are boarding up homes and seeking evacuation routes away from the dangerous storm heading their way.

Radar look at Michael

A hurricane hunter plane that bounced into the swirling eye of Michael off the west tip of Cuba late Monday found wind speeds were rising even as forecasters warned the storm could reach major hurricane status with winds topping 111 mph (179 kph) by Tuesday night. Anticipated landfall is expected Wednesday on the northeast Gulf Coast, where authorities warned of a potentially devastating strike.

By early Tuesday, Michael's top sustained winds had risen some to 90 mph (144 kph) as it headed north at 12 mph (19 kph). The storm was centered about 390 miles (627 kilometers) south of Apalachicola and 420 miles (675 kilometers) south of Panama City, Florida. Hurricane-force winds extended outward up to 35 miles (56 kilometers) from the core and tropical-storm-force winds out 175 miles (280 kilometers). Hurricane-force winds extended outward up to 40 miles (64 kilometers) from the core and tropical-storm-force winds out 195 miles (313.81 kilometers). Michael was lashing western Cuba on Monday with heavy rains and strong winds.

Forecasters warned that Michael, now a Category 3 storm, could dump up to a foot (30 centimeters) of rain in western Cuba, potentially triggering flash floods and mudslides in mountain areas.

Disaster agencies in El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua reported 13 deaths as roofs collapsed and residents were carried away by swollen rivers. Six people died in Honduras, four in Nicaragua and three in El Salvador. Authorities were also searching for a boy swept away by a river in Guatemala. Most of the rain was blamed on a low-pressure system off the Pacific coast of El Salvador. Hurricane Michael in the Caribbean could have also contributed.

On the Florida Panhandle, Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan bluntly advised residents who choose to ride out the storm that first responders won't be able to reach them during or immediately after 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.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott called Michael a "monstrous hurricane" with a devastating potential from high winds, storm surge and heavy rains. He Scott declared a state of emergency for 35 Florida counties from the Panhandle to Tampa Bay, activated hundreds of Florida National Guard members and waived tolls to encourage those near the coast to evacuate inland.

He 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 the small Panhandle city of Apalachicola, Mayor Van Johnson Sr. said the 2,300 residents are frantically preparing for a major hurricane strike that could be unlike any seen there in decades. Many filled sandbags and boarded up homes. Residents also lined up to buy gas and groceries even as evacuations — both voluntary and mandatory — were expected to pick up the pace Tuesday.

"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 the city, straddling the shore of Apalachicola Bay, a Gulf of Mexico inlet that reaps about 90 percent of Florida's oysters.

Mandatory evacuation orders were issued for residents of barrier islands, mobile homes and low-lying coastal areas in Gulf, Wakulla and Bay counties.

In a Facebook post Monday, the Wakulla County Sheriff's Office said no shelters would be open because Wakulla County shelters were rated safe only for hurricanes with top sustained winds below 111 mph (178 kph). With Michael's winds projected to be even stronger than that, Wakulla County 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.

High winds weren't the only danger. Parts of Florida's curvy Big Bend could see up to 12 feet (3.7 meters) of storm surge, while Michael also could dump up to a foot (30 centimeters) of rain over some Panhandle communities as it moves inland, forecasters said.

Neighbors in Alabama — the entire state is under an emergency declaration — also were bracing. Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said she feared widespread power outages and other problems would follow. Forecasters also warned spinoff tornadoes would also be a threat.

With the storm next entering the eastern part of the Gulf of Mexico, which has warm water 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.

A large mound of sand in Tallahassee was whittled down to a small pile within hours Monday as residents filled sandbags against potential flooding.

Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, Florida's Democratic nominee for governor, filled sandbags with residents and urged residents of the state capital city to finish up emergency preparations quickly. Local authorities fear power outages and major tree damage from Michael.

"Today it is about life and safety," Gillum said. "There's nothing between us and this storm but warm water and I think that's what terrifies us about the potential impacts."



Copyright 2023 by and the Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.