Hurricane Michael’s top winds reached 155 mph Wednesday on its approach for a direct hit on the Florida Gulf Coast tourist community of Panama City Beach, with the ultimate impact on inland portions of Alabama and Georgia bracing for the worst.
The Columbus area was relatively quiet until about 2 p.m. Wednesday, with rain then starting to fall in sheets throughout the afternoon. Heavier rain and higher winds are expected to start locally sometime between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m., with winds beginning to gust toward 40 mph. Wind gusts could remain in the 35 mph-plus range overnight, dying down somewhat by daybreak Thursday morning. Between 3 and 4 inches of rain are expected overnight.
Computer models from the National Hurricane Center and the National Weather Service were showing little change with Michael’s center of circulation coming ashore Wednesday afternoon. The massive storm had churned northward from the Caribbean Sea through very warm Gulf of Mexico waters. It is forecast to curve rapidly to the northeast at the southwest corner of Georgia. As it stays on that course Wednesday into Thursday, heavy rainfall accompanied by gusty high winds will spread over much of the lower half of the Peach State.
There also will be the threat of tornadoes as Michael and its outer rain bands move through the state. The Columbus area is under a tornado watch until 2 a.m. Thursday to go along with its existing tropical storm warning.
The storm clouds prompted Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal to declare a state of emergency Tuesday for 108 of the state’s 159 counties, including Muscogee, Chattahoochee, Talbot, Marion, Stewart, Sumter, Taylor, Schley, Quitman and Webster south and east of Columbus. Harris and Troup counties north of Columbus are not part of the state of emergency.
“In light of the storm’s forecasted track, I encourage Georgians in the affected counties to be prepared and remain vigilant,” Deal said of his emergency declaration.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey also declared a statewide emergency in her state, which includes Russell, Lee, Chambers and Barbour counties near Columbus.
The weather service issued a tropical storm warning Tuesday for the Georgia counties of Bibb, Bleckley, Chattahoochee, Crawford, Emanuel, Glascock, Houston, Jefferson, Johnson, Laurens, Macon, Marion, Montgomery, Peach, Schley, Stewart, Taylor, Toombs, Treutlen, Twiggs, Washington, Wheeler and Wilkinson. In Alabama, Barbour (Eufaula) and Pike counties are under a tropical storm warning.
“Prepare for life-threatening rainfall flooding having possible extensive impacts across portions of central and east Georgia from Columbus to Athens and south,” the weather service said Tuesday in a “hurricane local statement.”
“A tropical storm watch has been issued for the counties along and south of a line from Americus (Ga.) east-northeast to Swainsboro (Ga.),” the weather service said. “A flash flood watch has been issued for areas along and south of a line from Madison County to Chattahoochee County. The strongest wind gusts associated with the storm are expected to impact areas along and south of Warrenton to Macon to the Columbus line. Downed trees and extended power outages will be possible in these areas as a result.”
Michael has strengthened into a major Category 3 hurricane as it approaches the Florida coast, with winds reaching 125 mph near its center of rotation, the National Hurricane Center in Miami said in an update at 11 p.m. Tuesday. Category 4 winds begin at 130 mph.
A major threat will be storm surges from the ocean waters, with warnings now up along the Florida Panhandle. Panama City Beach — which is projected to experience a surge of 6 to 9 feet along its coast dotted with hotels, condos, restaurants and homes — issued a mandatory evacuation for specific areas near the coastline Tuesday morning.
“We are currently under an emergency mandatory evacuation for Panama City Beach as of 6 a.m. this morning due to Hurricane Michael,” management of the Holiday Inn Resort on Front Beach Road said on the hotel’s Facebook page. “We wish all our guests who are traveling back home a safe journey. If you have a reservation during the evacuation time and paid a deposit, it will be refunded.”
Once Michael moves northeast out of Florida and into Georgia, the current track (as of 5 p.m. Wednesday) takes the storm northeast into southwest Georgia, with it moving over Albany and east of Macon and Warner Robins, according to the hurricane center. The fast-moving storm is expected to blow through the state on its way to the eastern Carolinas, which suffered catastrophic flooding from Hurricane Florence a few weeks ago.
A map posted by the hurricane center Wednesday continued to show the Columbus area with as much as a 70 percent chance of experiencing tropical storm winds from Michael, which would be at least 39 mph. A separate map shows Columbus could see rain totals between 2 and 4 inches from the storm. Areas east of Columbus, including central Georgia, are in a zone of 4 to 6 inches, with heavier amounts higher depending upon the location of persistent rain bands as remnants of Hurricane Michael move toward the northeast.
Those fleeing the hurricane’s wrath will be able to seek temporary shelter in Columbus, with the American Red Cross receiving permission from the city to open Shirley Winston Recreation Center, 5025 Steam Mill Road, starting at 5 p.m. Tuesday. However, the agency is calling the recreation center a “24-hour emergency center,” meaning no cots will be available and those staying there will need to bring their own blankets, pillows and other necessities.
Another Columbus entity called SafeHouse, which is located at Rose Hill Methodist Church, 2101 Hamilton Road, is offering a place to stay for storm evacuees starting at 6 a.m. Wednesday. It said no questions will be asked and no one will be turned away, with those needing information advised to call 706-322-3773.
After the storm clouds clear, a bright and sunny day is forecast for the Columbus area on Friday, with a high in the upper 70s and a low in the mid-50s.