A tropical storm strengthened into a Category 1 hurricane off Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and could become a dangerous Category 2 storm before an expected midweek strike on the Gulf Coast in the Florida Panhandle, forecasters said Monday. By Monday morning, Hurricane Michael's maximum sustained winds were near 75 mph.
The storm was expected to move into the Gulf of Mexico, where very warm water temperatures and favorable atmospheric conditions were expected to fuel its strength, Robbie Berg, a hurricane specialist at the Miami-based National Hurricane Center, wrote in an advisory.
Since the storm will spend two to three days over the Gulf, "there is a real possibility that Michael will strengthen to a major hurricane before landfall," Berg wrote. Forecast projections put anywhere along the Panhandle from the Big Bend area to the Alabama border in Michael's path, meteorologist Danielle Niles of CBS Boston station WBZ-TV reports.
The storm could then move over North Carolina and South Carolina as a tropical storm, Niles reports. Florida Gov. Rick Scott issued an order for a state of emergency for 26 counties to rush preparations in the Panhandle and the Big Bend area, freeing up resources and activating 500 members of the Florida National Guard ahead of Michael.
"This storm will be life-threatening and extremely dangerous," Scott said Sunday after receiving a briefing at the State Emergency Operations Center. He warned that storm surge could affect areas of Florida not in the storm's direct path.
As of 8 a.m. EDT Monday, the storm was centered about 120 miles east-northeast of Cozumel, Mexico, and moving to the north at about 7 mph. Tropical storm winds extended out 175 miles from the storm's center.
Forecasters advised residents along the northeastern and central U.S. Gulf Coast to monitor the storm's progress. Florida's capital city of Tallahassee, which is in the Panhandle, opened two locations Sunday where residents could get sandbags to prepare for flooding.
"While the impacts are still uncertain, our area could experience increased wind activity and heavy rainfall, which could cause localized flooding and downed trees," Tallahassee officials said in a statement. Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, who is the Democratic nominee for governor, had planned to campaign in South Florida Monday and Tuesday, but he said he would return to Tallahassee to help with storm preparations.
The city of Pensacola tweeted to residents, "Be sure you have your emergency plan in place."
A tropical storm warning was in effect for the Cuban provinces of Pinar del Rio and the Isle of Youth as well as the coast of Mexico from Tulum to Cabo Catoche. A warning indicates tropical storm conditions are expected, in this case, within 24 hours.
The hurricane center warned that the storm could produce up to a foot of rain in western Cuba, potentially triggering flash floods and mudslides in mountainous areas. An Air Force hurricane hunter airplane was sent into the storm to investigate, the hurricane center said.
Michael is the 13th named storm of the 2018 hurricane season.