Evacuations as Florida braces for ‘monstrous’ Hurricane Michael

Al Jazeera News:  

Residents of the US state of Florida are boarding up homes and seeking evacuation routes away from Hurricane Michael, forecast to slam ashore midweek with life-threatening waves, winds and rains.

Michael was packing sustained winds of up to 140km/h late on Monday and gaining strength as it skirted past Cuba’s western tip, where it is expected to dump as much as 30cm of rain, potentially triggering flash floods and mudslides in mountain areas.

At least 13 people have died in Central America over the weekend because of torrential rains and flash flooding caused by the storm.

Currently ranked as a category-1 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson wind scale, Michael could grow into a category-3 storm, with the power to uproot trees, block roads and knock out power for days by the time it hits Florida on Wednesday.

The hurricane is expected to be the most powerful storm to strike the southern US state’s panhandle in at least a decade.

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.

He has also activated hundreds of Florida National Guard members and waived tolls to encourage those near the coast to evacuate inland.

“We are running out of time,” Scott said in a post on Twitter. “TODAY is the day to get a plan, because tomorrow could be too late.”

Mandatory evacuations were under way in coastal areas, with 1,250 National Guard soldiers aiding the process and more than 4,000 troops placed on standby, according to the governor’s office.

The National Hurricane Center (NHC) said the storm could unleash coastal storm surges of up to 3.7 meters along the Florida Panhandle and dump up to 30 cm of rain across Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.

The NHC warned that the waves and rain could trigger deadly flooding, and that residents within the hurricane warning zone should likewise “prepare for life-threatening winds.”

On the Florida Panhandle, Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan bluntly advised residents who choose to ride out the storm that first responders would not 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.

In Gulf County alone, the first to begin ordering residents of low-lying areas to higher ground, mandatory evacuation notices encompassed an estimated 3,800 homes, said Jessica Sasich of the county’s emergency operations centre.

After striking Florida, Michael is forecast to move up the East Coast on Wednesday and Thursday tearing through the Carolinas, still recovering from Hurricane Florence last month.

The category-1 hurricane left dozens dead in the Carolinas and is estimated to have caused billions of dollars in damage.

Last year saw a string of catastrophic storms batter the western Atlantic – including Irma, Maria and Hurricane Harvey – causing a record-equalling $125bn in damage when it flooded the Houston metropolitan area.

Scientists have long warned that global warming will make cyclones more destructive, and some say the evidence for this may already be visible.

At their most fearsome, these low-pressure weather fronts pack more power than the energy released by the atomic bomb that levelled Hiroshima.