Michael gained new strength over warm tropical waters amid a forecast that it would swiftly intensify into a major hurricane before striking Florida's northeast Gulf Coast, where frantic coastal residents were boarding up homes and seeking evacuation routes away from the dangerous storm heading their way. 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 would reach major (Category 3) hurricane status with winds topping 111 mph.
Landfall is expected Wednesday on the northeastern Gulf Coast, where authorities warned of a potentially devastating strike.
The National Hurricane Center, in Miami said early Tuesday that, "On the forecast track, the center of Michael will continue to move over the southeastern Gulf of Mexico this morning, then move across the eastern Gulf of Mexico later today and tonight. The center of Michael is expected to move inland over the Florida Panhandle or Florida Big Bend area on Wednesday.
The center added an ominous note, saying, "Strengthening is expected, and Michael is forecast to be a major hurricane at landfall in Florida. Weakening is expected after landfall as Michael moves through the southeastern United States" Wednesday night and Thursday.
As of 8 a.m. ET Tuesday, Michael's top sustained winds had strengthened to 100 mph, making it a Category 2 storm as it headed north-northwest at 12 mph. The storm was centered about 365 miles south of Apalachicola and 395 miles south of Panama City, which are both in the Panhandle. Hurricane-force winds extended outward up to 40 miles from the core and tropical-storm-force winds went out 195 miles.
Mandatory evacuations began in Panama City Beach and across other low-lying parts of the Panhandle.
The evacuation orders went into effect Tuesday morning for some 120,000 people near the beach and other areas of Bay County.
During an emergency meeting of the Bay County Commission on Monday night, Sheriff Tommy Ford said people will "not be dragged out of their homes," but reminded those who stay that first responders may not be able to reach them once the storm hits.
Ford said, "People need to start leaving now," adding that the roads are going to get "more and more congested as time goes on."
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 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.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.