APALACHICOLA — Hurricane Michael rapidly bore down on Florida’s Panhandle coast, sending more than 100,000 people scrambling to get out of the way of the powerful storm forecast to reach Category 4 strength when it makes landfall Wednesday afternoon.
It is the strongest storm to threaten North Florida in a decade, a fast-moving hurricane fueled by the gulf’s warm waters and aiming toward land with wind speeds of nearly 125 mph and a potential storm surge of up to 13 feet.
In a state where some are still recovering from Hurricane Irma last year, Michael threatened to inflict even greater devastation by both wind and water.
The speed of the storm left little time for residents to flee before being caught in hurricane-force wind and rain. Frantic coastal dwellers boarded up their homes and checked evacuation routes. Some, despite the urging of government officials, chose to stick it out.
In historic Apalachicola, the center of Florida’s fading oyster industry, those who chose to stay were busy Tuesday stacking sandbags by the doors of low brick and clapboard buildings that proudly displayed their ability to survive prior disasters: The Apalachicola Times, est. 1885, The Gibson Inn, est. 1907.
Inside the Apalachicola Ice Co., a bar that was once an outboard motor shop, there is a small, irregular mark scratched about 2-feet high on a weathered wooden post along the wall. It signifies how high the water reached during Hurricane Dennis in 2005.
Co-owner James Frost, 36, sat with a few others on the sidewalk outside the bar late Tuesday, staring at the Apalachicola River, hoping the water will stop once it reaches that height as Michael slams ashore today.
"As long as it doesn’t go over the bar top, I should be fine," he said. "Until the water comes up, we’re just waiting. There’s not much else we can do."
Still, he dreaded the arrival of Michael: "We know it’s going to be bad."
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Michael reached Category 3 strength on Tuesday while officials warned residents to take the approaching storm seriously.
Gov. Rick Scott on Tuesday called Michael a "monstrous hurricane" and declared a state of emergency for 35 Florida counties from the Panhandle to Tampa Bay. He also activated hundreds of Florida National Guard members and waived tolls to encourage those living near the coast to evacuate inland.
Most of the Tampa Bay area remained under a tropical storm watch and storm surge watch. Areas from the Anclote River to the north are under a storm surge warning.
The threat of rising water prompted Pasco County emergency officials to recommend voluntary evacuations for residents west of U.S. 19 vulnerable to potential storm surge, special needs residents and anyone in low-lying areas.
Even as the storm churned some 200 miles away from the Tampa Bay area, its effects could still be felt Tuesday as floodwaters reached the low-lying streets in areas such as Clearwater Beach and St. Pete Beach.
A neighbor’s text sent Steve Hassen, 55, rushing back to his home on W Maritana Drive. High tide had sent water halfway up the driveway of his St. Pete Beach driveway by 4 p.m.
"I tell people it’s great living here 364 days a year," he said, leaning on his truck and sipping from a plastic cup as he watched the water recede. The next high tide would arrive just after midnight, and then at 1:30 p.m. today.
"We’ll just have to see what happens tonight, which way the weather goes," Hassen said.
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Michael seemed to spin up into a powerful hurricane very quickly because it sprouted over the weekend from a weather system known as a Central American gyre, said Dennis Feltgen of the National Hurricane Center.
The gyre begins as a large, spinning area of low pressure that usually spawns several storms in the fall.
When hurricane season starts in June, they grow out of tropical depressions in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. Then as summer goes on, they start spinning off the coast of Africa, giving Florida plenty of warning before they arrive — until late September. The hurricanes of October usually arise from the narrow isthmus of Central America.
The Central American gyre has been known to spin off storms into both the Gulf of Mexico and Pacific. The ones that emerge into the gulf usually head straight north and slam into Florida, because "it’s in the way," he said. Hurricane Wilma spawned the same way in 2005.
The National Weather Service said Tampa Bay residents can expect the risk of isolated tornadoes throughout the day, wind gusts up to 35 mph, and intermittent thundershowers — but no significant rain event was forecast.
The most pressing worry will be flooding in low-lying areas. For those who live along the Tampa Bay coast, storm surge is likely to be 2 to 4 feet above normal for high tide and 4 to 6 feet toward Hernando County.
The effects will be far worse up north. Forecasters said parts of Florida’s marshy, lightly populated Big Bend area — the crook of Florida’s elbow — could see up to 13 feet of storm surge.
Michael also could dump up to a foot of rain over some Panhandle communities before it sweeps into Georgia.
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During Hurricane Irma last year, 14 people died when a South Florida nursing home lost power and air conditioning. Although legislators required nursing homes to have backup power sources, more than half of long-term care facilities in the Panhandle and Big Bend still haven’t implemented that.
Scott warned caregivers at North Florida hospitals and nursing homes to do everything possible to assure the safety of the elderly and infirm.
"If you’re responsible for a patient, you’re responsible for the patient. Take care of them," he said.
His Democratic opponent in Florida’s U.S. Senate race, Sen. Bill Nelson, said a "wall of water" could cause major destruction along the Panhandle.
"Don’t think that you can ride this out if you’re in a low-lying area," Nelson said on CNN.
Back in Apalachicola, Mayor Van Johnson Sr. said the town’s 2,300 residents were frantically preparing for a major hurricane strike unlike any seen there in decades:
"We’re looking at a significant storm with significant impact, possibly greater than I’ve seen in my 59 years of life."
Times staff writers Steve Bousquet, Daniel Figueroa IV, Samantha J. Gross, Suhauna Hussain, Elizabeth Koh and Devin Rodriguez contributed to this report, which also uses material from the Associated Press.
CORRECTION: Hurricane Wilma hit Florida in 2005. An earlier version of this story had an incorrect year.