Oct. 8 (UPI) — With Hurricane Michael’s landfall on the Gulf Coast expected on Wednesday, officials in coastal counties were preparing for evacuations and emergencies.
Michael was a tropical storm until 11 a.m. CDT on Monday, when its increased wind speed, to 75 mph, upgraded it to a Category 1 hurricane. The National Hurricane Center said the hurricane is expected to strengthen at a rapid pace. The latest forecast shows it reaching the Florida’s Panhandle or Big Bend area as a Category 3 hurricane by Tuesday or Wednesday.
A state of emergency was declared in 26 Florida counties, with a hurricane watch in effect from the Alabama-Florida border to the Suwannee River. A tropical storm watch was in effect for the Alabama coast, as well.
Gulf County officials issued a mandatory evacuation for All of Cape San Blas, all of Indian Pass area, Simmons Bayou, Highland View, and Windmark. Evacuations were also ordered for the City of Port St. Joe, all areas from St. Joseph Bay to Long Avenue; St. Joe Beach and Beacon Hill — Waterside of Highway 98.
All of the affected areas were ordered to evacuate within 24 hours of the 10 a.m. Monday notice and critical businesses in the area were permitted to remain open until 12 p.m. Tuesday.
A voluntary evacuation order was issued for Highway 98 Inland on St. Joe Beach and Beacon Hill.
Franklin County emergency officials issued a mandatory evacuation for all non-residents and Wakulla County emergency officials plan to announce a mandatory evacuation for coastal and low lying locations by 8 p.m. Monday night.
Both counties were offering sandbags to residents on Monday.
Pamela Brownell, Franklin County emergency management director, said officials are warning those living in recreational vehicles or mobile homes and those visiting state parks about the storm.
In Bay County, which includes Panama City, officials said bridge closings are likely. Evacuation schedules were expected late Monday, but visitors were encouraged to make plans to leave.
Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum suspended his campaign for governor Monday as he warned Michael will be a “life-threatening event.”
“We’ve got to ensure that folks are being smart in the aftermath of the storm, that they keep themselves and family members safe until after the first responders can get in and obviously the recovery process will start after that,” Gillum said.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis tweeted Sunday he would redirect his Panhandle campaign staff and volunteers to help prepare their communities ahead of the storm as he and his wife Casey DeSantis monitor the storm.
“We are watching the storm carefully, and Casey and I are keeping those in its path in our thoughts and prayers,” he wrote.
Campaign representatives for Scott and Sen. Bill Nelson told CNN Scott would be leaving the campaign trail for the “next few days” and Nelson would with emergency management officials in the Panhandle on Tuesday to “make sure local officials have everything they need.”
Florida State University in Tallahassee announced it would cancel classes Tuesday through Friday. A school statement encouraged students “to discuss possible travel plans with family and friends,” and added that dining and housing would remain open.
An adjunct campus in Panama City will follow the same schedule, the statement said.