Michael strengthens to hurricane; targets Florida

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– Tropical Storm Michael has reached hurricane strength as it moves north into the Gulf of Mexico, and forecasters expect it to get even stronger before landfall on the Florida Panhandle.

The storm’s projected path shows Michael staying west of peninsular Florida, making a landfall somewhere along the Panhandle on Wednesday.  Under that track, the Tampa Bay area would still experience some wind, rain, and some coastal flooding.

On Monday morning, the National Weather Service issued a storm surge watch from Navarre to Anna Maria Island, including Tampa Bay.

A tropical storm watch was issued from Suwannee River to Anna Maria Island, which also includes Tampa Bay. Hurricane watches have been issued for the Florida Panhandle and Big Bend area.

As of 11 a.m. Monday, Hurricane Michael reached winds of 75 mph and is moving through deep, warm water as it approaches the Gulf of Mexico. It has the potential to undergo rapid intensification when it enters the Gulf before turning northeast towards Florida. It is expected to become a Category 3 major  hurricane by the time it makes landfall somewhere in northwest Florida.

LINK: Track Hurricane Michael on MyFoxHurricane.com

While the storm will pass well west of Tampa Bay, the area will see gusty south and southeast winds with showers Monday through Wednesday. As the storm turns northeast near the Florida panhandle, the winds will shift southwest. 

Water levels along the west coast of the Bay Area could rise. Tampa Bay itself could see up to 4 feet of storm surge.

“We’ve seen this happen many times with storms, and they’ve just start to bring all that water with them,” explained FOX 13’s meteorologist Dave Osterberg, “and they’ve pushed that water in.”

Governor Rick Scott ordered a state of emergency Sunday for 26 counties in the Panhandle and Big Bend area, which will free up resources for storm preparation and recovery efforts. 

“This storm will be life-threatening and extremely dangerous,” Scott said during a press conference. “If this storm hit Panama City, Tampa could still have storm surge. Every family must be prepared.”

Panama City is about 375 miles away from Tampa. Scott also activated 500 members of the Florida National Guard ahead of the storm.

LINK: More Hurricane Michael maps & models