Hurricane Michael path: Strong Category 3 storm heads toward Florida Panhandle

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Major Hurricane Michael is still gaining strength and forecast to become a potentially devastating Category 4 storm before making landfall along Florida’s northeast Gulf Coast.

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The National Hurricane Center in Miami said at 11 p.m. EDT Tuesday that a hurricane hunter plane found Michael’s top sustained winds have increased to near 125 mph with higher gusts.

While Michael is now a strong Category 3 major hurricane, forecasters say, it’s still strengthening and is expected to become a Category 4 hurricane before it makes landfall Wednesday.

At 11 p.m. EDT, the eye of Michael was about 220 miles south-southwest of Panama City, Florida. It also was about 200 miles south-southwest of Apalachicola, Florida.

The National Hurricane Center in Miami says Michael will push life-threatening storm surge onto parts of the Gulf Coast during the day Wednesday, bringing with it dangerous winds and heavy rains.

Though the storm is expected to weaken once it heads inland over the U.S. Southeast, tropical storm watches and warnings are in place along a stretch of the Atlantic seaboard in a region from northeast Florida to North Carolina.

Authorities in Florida’s Citrus County say they’ve ordered a mandatory evacuation affecting more than 17,000 people along the Gulf Coast as Hurricane Michael approaches.

Also ordered to leave the county Tuesday: anyone staying in an RV, mobile home or manufactured home throughout the county.

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Based on the responses of officials in even Florida counties, approximately 279,200 people have been affected by mandatory or voluntary evacuations as they seek to get away from Michael’s projected path.

Michael strengthened Tuesday into a potentially devastating major hurricane as it continued its crossing of the eastern Gulf of Mexico. It’s headed toward an expected Wednesday landfall on the Florida Panhandle.

While Florence took five days between the time it turned into a hurricane and the moment it rolled into the Carolinas, Michael gave Florida what amounted to two days’ notice. It developed into a hurricane on Monday, and by Tuesday, at least 120,000 people were under mandatory evacuation orders.

The storm will weaken as it tracks toward North Carolina, but it will still bring heavy rain on Thursday.

Gov. Roy Cooper spoke Tuesday about preparations that were in place for when Michael begins dropping rain on North Carolina. “Because of the damage caused by Hurricane Florence and the fact that there’s still some standing water in places, we have to be that much more alert about the damage Hurricane Michael could do,” he said.

In the Triangle, rain chances go up Wednesday, but Thursday will be the wettest day of the week. This timing could change if the storm slows down.

That much rain could cause some problems as the ground is still rather wet, especially in the Sandhills.

Likely, the onset of the rain will infiltrate into the soil with no problem, but after an inch or so, runoff is possible.

The Weather Prediction Center has about 1-3” of rain falling across our area with a few areas getting as much as 4″. This could cause flash flooding especially since the ground is still saturated from Florence.

Timing and rainfall amounts will be fine-tuned as we get closer to the event. Unfortunately, the first day of the North Carolina State Fair could be rather wet.

Officials do not expect much river flooding but will monitor river levels throughout the storm. They encourage people to sign up for e-mail and text flood alerts, which can be done by clicking this link.

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Unicorn bacon, Crack-N-Cheese Waffle Cone, Shrimp & Cheddar Cheese Grits Eggroll, oh my!

The rain clears out Friday morning as a cold front sweeps the storm out to sea.

After the storm moves past, much cooler and drier air moves in and it will finally feel like autumn!

The good news is that Michael will move faster than Florence did, thanks to the jet stream and the aforementioned strong cold front.

Keep in mind with this storm being a few days out, timing and local impacts will change. These predictions are based on the current track of the storm.

(Copyright ©2018 ABC11-WTVD-TV/DT. All Rights Reserved – The Associated Press contributed to this report.)