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Now a major storm, Hurricane Michael aims for Florida Panhandle


Hurricane Michael strengthened into a major storm Tuesday, keeping the Florida Panhandle in its expected path toward landfall Wednesday.

The storm is now Category 3 and boasts sustained wind speeds maxing out at 120 mph. Forecasters say it could bring catastrophic damage when it makes landfall.

"Michael could develop into a potentially catastrophic event for the northeastern Gulf Coast," the National Weather Service office in Tallahassee, Fla., said. Forecasters said Michael could be the strongest hurricane in 12 years to hit the stretch of coastline from Pensacola to Tampa.

On Tuesday afternoon, the National Hurricane Center reported winds speeds maxing out at 120 mph -- just above the threshold for category 3 status. Massive storm surges are expected along the Florida coast, the NHC added. The biggest waves are expected from Mexico Beach to Keaton Beach, where they could reach 9 to 13 feet in height. Storm surge could reach heights of 6 to 9 feet from the Okaloosa-Walton County line to Mexico Beach and from Keaton Beach to Cedar Key. Cedar Key to Chassahowitzka could see storm surge topping out between 4 to 6 feet. The areas from Chassahowitzka to Anna Maria Island and between the Alabama-Florida border and the Okaloosa-Walton county line could see 2 to 4 feet of storm surge.

"This is a life-threatening situation," the NHC said Tuesday. "Persons located within these areas should take all necessary actions to protect life and property from rising water and the potential for other dangerous conditions. Promptly follow evacuation and other instructions from local officials."

"It's a massive storm," Florida Gov. Rick Scott said. "We haven't seen anything like this in the Panhandle in decades."

Michael was about 295 miles south of Panama City, Fla., and 270 miles south-southwest of Apalachicola, Fla., the NHC said in an 2 p.m. advisory. The storm was moving north at 12 mph.

A storm surge warning was in effect from the Okaloosa-Walton County line to the Anclote River, the NHC said. A hurricane warning covered the Alabama-Florida border east to the Suwannee River.

The NHC forecasts 4 to 8 inches of rain for the Panhandle, southeast Alabama and parts of southwest and central Georgia. Isolated areas could get 12 inches with the threat of life-threatening flash floods.

Once it reaches land, Michael is forecast to weaken into a tropical storm when it passes through the East Coast, including the New York City area, by Friday morning. The storm's track will take it back out to the Atlantic Ocean Friday.

The other storms in the Atlantic Ocean include Tropical Storm Leslie, which has zig-zagged in intensity. Maximum sustained winds are near 50 mph with higher gusts, the NHC said in an 5 a.m. AST advisory, adding that slow strengthening is forecast during the next few days. The storm was in the central Atlantic Ocean, 1,035 miles west of the Azores.

Leslie was a subtropical storm on Sept. 23 but weakened into depression, then back into a tropical storm.

Tropical Storm Nadine is also spinning about 480 miles southwest of the Cabo Verde Islands, the NHC said at 11 a.m. Tuesday.
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