Gathering strength, Hurricane Michael heads for Florida

Satellite image provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows a view of Tropical Storm Michael lower right churning as it heads toward the Florida Panhandle

Authorities told residents and tourists in at least 20 Florida counties to evacuate coastal areas along the 200-mile (322 km) long Panhandle and adjacent Big Bend region. The storm, now about 395 miles south of Panama City, was moving north-northwest at 12 mph. The hurricane is expected to make landfall in Florida's Panhandle or Big Bend on Wednesday before crossing Georgia and the Carolinas as a weaker storm.

In the small Panhandle city of Apalachicola, Mayor Van Johnson Sr. said the 2,300 residents are frantically preparing for a major hurricane strike that could be unlike any there in decades. "The time to prepare is now". The governors of Alabama and Georgia also made emergency declarations.

People in areas that could be affected should take no chances against such a powerful surge, Scott said, adding, "No one's going to survive", such a wall of water.

Michael is expected to become a major hurricane by today or tonight, according to a Monday evening advisory from the National Hurricane Center.

The Gulf of Mexico produces 17 percent of daily U.S. crude oil output and 5 percent of daily natural gas output, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The partial shutdown ahead of Michael helped push oil prices slightly higher on Tuesday.

The storm's center is expected to move inland over the Florida Panhandle or Florida Big Ben area today before moving northeastward across the southeastern US tonight and tomorrow morning.

Florida's governor Rick Scott called Michael "a monstrous hurricane", and has declared a state of emergency for 35 Florida counties from the panhandle to Tampa Bay. "You will see power outages", said Jeff Byard, associate administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Office of Response and Recovery. About 1,250 National Guard soldiers were aiding the process and more than 4,000 troops placed on standby, Scott tweeted.

The two states are still recovering from Hurricane Florence last month.

In Florida, state offices, schools and universities were set to close on Tuesday through the end of the week in panhandle counties. Those who stayed emptied grocery store shelves of water and other supplies.

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That's when Maryland could see the first remnants of the storm.

The only other storm in the Atlantic Ocean is Tropical Storm Leslie, which has zig-zagged in intensity.

The system has now graduated to Category 2 hurricane status and is expected to reach Category 3 (with winds in excess of 110 mph) when it makes its US mainland landfall on Wednesday afternoon.

Torrential downpours and flash-flooding over the weekend caused 13 deaths in Central America after Michael formed off the coast of northern Honduras.

The speed of the storm barreling toward the Florida Panhandle - Michael was moving north-northwest at 12 miles per hour (19 kph) - was among the hazards worrying forecasters at the National Hurricane Center on Tuesday morning.

On its current track, it would make landfall somewhere along a coastline that includes the cities and towns of Fort Walton Beach, Panama City Beach, Port St. Joe, St. Teresa and the wildlife reserves bordering Apalachee Bay. "It's forecast to be a large and unsafe hurricane at landfall".

Michael could also dump up to a foot of rain over some panhandle communities before it sweeps through the Southeast and goes out to sea over the next few days.

More than 45 per cent of the nation's refining capacity is located along the US Gulf Coast, which also is home to 51 per cent of total US natural gas processing capability.

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