PANAMA CITY, Fla. (AP) — Gaining frightening fury overnight, Hurricane Michael closed in Wednesday on the Florida Panhandle with potentially catastrophic winds of 145 mph, the most powerful storm on record ever to menace the stretch of fishing towns, military bases and spring-break beaches.
With more than 375,000 people up and down the Gulf Coast warned to clear out, the hurricane’s leading edge began lashing the white-sand shoreline with tropical storm-force winds, rain and rising seas before daybreak, hours before Michael’s center was expected to blow ashore.
“I really fear for what things are going to look like there tomorrow at this time,” Colorado State University hurricane expert Phil Klotzbach said in an email.
The unexpected brute quickly sprang from a weekend tropical depression, reaching Category 4 early Wednesday as it drew energy from the Gulf of Mexico’s 84-degree waters. That was up from a Category 2 on Tuesday afternoon.
“The time to evacuate has come and gone ... SEEK REFUGE IMMEDIATELY,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott tweeted, while the sheriff in Panama City’s Bay County issued a shelter-in-place order before dawn.
At 8 a.m ., Michael was centered was about 90 miles (145 kilometers) from Panama City and Apalachicola, moving fast at 13 mph (21 kph). Tropical storm winds extended 185 miles (295 kilometers) from the center, and hurricane-force winds reached out 45 miles (75 kilometers).
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