Powerful Hurricane Michael nears the Florida coast
Michael lashed Georgia Wednesday evening before weakening to a Category 1 storm between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. It could bring “unprecedented” wind damage, the National Weather Service said, along with tornadoes and heavy rain.
The storm weakened further to a tropical storm after midnight.
As of 12 a..m. Wednesday, Michael’s maximum sustained winds near its core had fallen to 70 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami, with radar showing its location about 30 miles southwest of Macon, Ga. The center of the hurricane was past Columbus to the southeast.
Its path is expected to continue in more of a northeast direction just east of the Georgia cities of Macon and Warner Robins, eventually moving into the Carolinas, which were swamped by Hurricane Florence a few weeks ago.
The storm has sped up steadily since breaching land, and is now moving at about 17 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center.
“In the forecast track, the core o fMichael will move across southwestern and central Georgia overnight,and move through east-central Georgia Thursday morning. Michael will then move northeastward across the southeastern United States through late Thursday, and then move off the Mid-Atlantic coast by early Friday,” the National Hurricane Center wrote.
The city asks that residents call 311 or 706-653-4000 to report downed trees and limbs, as well as any street flooding problems.
The National Weather Service said the Columbus area could expect to see winds between 20 mph and 30 mph, with gusts as high as 45 mph, as the storm moves inland from the Florida Panhandle after landing just east of Panama City Beach. The weather service said showers and thunderstorms are possible in the Columbus area Wednesday night and into the early morning hours of Thursday, with heavy rainfall dropping between 3 to 4 inches before the remnants of Michael speed through central Georgia.
Forecasts show the worst for Columbus and the Chattahoochee Valley will likely come between 8 p.m. Wednesday and 2 a.m. Thursday, although strong wind gusts will be possible until daybreak. The area is under a tornado watch until 2 a.m., while sunny skies are expected to return to the local area by Thursday afternoon.
Amid the flurry of anticipation for Hurricane Michael, the Columbus Consolidated Government made a proactive move Wednesday to send all non-essential employees home at 2 p.m., with weather conditions expected to begin deteriorating in the afternoon. Area schools, colleges and universities all made a decision on whether to close early Wednesday or cancel classes altogether.
“We are asking all citizens to secure outdoor items like trash cans, urns or outdoor furniture,” Mayor Teresa Tomlinson said Wednesday in an advisory, which also asked residents to stay off city streets after 3 p.m. and until the storm has passed. “Do not put your Thursday trash on the street until Thursday morning. At this point, we are only expecting 2 to 3 inches of rain, which is a level we can readily handle. Just use common sense and take typical storm precautions, and we should all be OK.”
Hurricane Michael’s eye wall reached the coast just east Panama City Beach, Fla., near the small community of Mexico Beach, early in the afternoon, with its maximum sustained winds hitting 155 mph as it did so, according to the hurricane center. Winds from the hurricane will begin to diminish as Michael moves northeast across southern and central Georgia, but areas near the center of its path could see hurricane-force winds of up to 75 mph, according to the National Weather Service. Rain bands circulating around the fast-moving storm is expected to bring periodic heavy rainfall and tropical-level winds, with the possibility of pop-up tornadoes.
“Plan for dangerous wind of equivalent strong tropical storm force due to possible forecast changes in track, size or intensity,” the weather service said in its tropical storm warning advisory. “Prepare for significant wind damage. Move to safe shelter before the wind becomes hazardous.”
Forecasts indicated the Columbus area would be relatively quiet until about 2 p.m. Wednesday, which it was. Steady rain did begin around that time, with it sometimes blowing in sheets amid gusting winds.
Aside from Muscogee County, other Georgia counties that are part of the tropical storm warning include Baldwin, Bibb, Bleckley, Chattahoochee, Crawford, Crisp, Dodge, Dooly, Emanuel, Glascock, Greene, Hancock, Houston, Jasper, Jefferson, Johnson, Jones, Lamar, Laurens, Macon, Marion, Monroe, Montgomery, Morgan, Oglethorpe, Peach, Pulaski, Putnam, Schley, Stewart, Sumter, Talbot, Taliaferro, Taylor, Telfair, Toombs, Treutlen, Twiggs, Upson, Warren, Washington, Webster, Wheeler, Wilcox, Wilkes and Wilkinson.
The local Alabama counties under a tropical storm warning include Barbour, Bullock, Pike and Russell. Areas farther south in and around Dothan, Ala., will be facing hurricane-force conditions due to their close proximity to the Gulf Coast.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal has declared a state of emergency 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. Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey also declared a statewide emergency in her state.