Hurricane Michael could strengthen to a Category 3 by the time it reaches the Florida panhandle, the National Hurricane Center predicts.
The latest forecasts show a major hurricane making landfall Wednesday with a possible storm surge of up to 12 feet in the Big Bend area. NHC Director Ken Graham said Monday that winds as high as 120 mph are possible at landfall, which would make it a Category 3 hurricane.
As data gathered by Hurricane Hunters showed the storm strengthening quicker than expected Monday, Florida is bracing for what could be the worst storm to hit the region since Hurricane Ivan in 2004, the Miami Herald reports.
In the 4 p.m. Monday update, hurricane center forecasters said maximum sustained winds had increased to nearly 80 mph with higher gusts. The hurricane will strengthen rapidly and steadily on Tuesday and Wednesday, with Michael expected to become a major hurricane by Tuesday or Tuesday night.
Michael was moving slowly north to northwest at 9 mph on Monday, the hurricane center said. A low pressure system is expected to start pulling the storm in a faster and eastward direction on Tuesday.
Most of the impacts from the storm are expected to be east of the Mississippi Coast, the National Weather Service in New Orleans says. But a tropical storm watch has been issued in Harrison, Jackson and Hancock counties.
“The primary impact will be possible tropical storm force winds across portions of Mississippi Coast by late Tuesday,” the weather service said Monday afternoon. “Secondary threats heavy rainfall of heavy rainfall of 1 to 2 inches with locally higher amounts, and storm surge of 1 to 3 feet, along the Mississippi coast eastern facing shores.”
Less than 2 inches of rain is forecast so far for South Mississippi, although it could be higher if feeder bands send multiple storms over the same areas, according to Harrison County Emergency Management Director Rupert Lacy.
A coastal flood advisory has also issued for the entire Mississippi Coast through Tuesday. High tides could cause coastal flooding 1 to 2 feet above ground level in low-lying areas, Lacy said.
Gulf Islands National Seashore officials are beginning shutdown procedures of East and West Ship, Horn, Cat, Petit Bois, and West Petit Bois islands to all public access. The Davis Bayou Area and Campground will remain open but its status may change.
Hurricane Hunters flew out of Biloxi on Monday morning and afternoon, confirming Michael’s location, wind speed and direction.
A Category 2 hurricane has a windspeed of 96 to 110 mph, according to the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale. A Category 3 is 111 to 129 mph.
A hurricane watch has been issued from the Alabama-Florida border eastward to the Suwanee River in Florida. A tropical storm watch has been issued from the Alabama-Florida border to the Mississippi-Alabama border.