Michael could strengthen to Category 4 before landfall
TAMPA (FOX 13) - Major Hurricane Michael is still gaining strength and forecast to become a potentially devastating Category 4 storm before making landfall along Florida's northeast Gulf Coast.
The National Hurricane Center in Miami said at 11 p.m. EDT Tuesday that a hurricane hunter plane found Michael's top sustained winds have increased to near 125 mph (205 kph) with higher gusts.
While Michael is now a strong Category 3 major hurricane, forecasters say, it's still strengthening and is expected to become a Category 4 hurricane before it makes landfall Wednesday.
At 11 p.m. EDT, the eye of Michael was about 220 miles (355 kilometers) south-southwest of Panama City, Florida. It also was about 200 miles (325 kilometers) south-southwest of Apalachicola, Florida.
Already, the combination of afternoon high tide and an onshore wind was pushing water into streets along the state's west coast. Minor flooding was reported from Sarasota to Clearwater early Tuesday afternoon.
LINK: Track Hurricane Michael on MyFoxHurricane.com
Mandatory evacuations are underway for Citrus County residents living in Zone A, or in mobile homes. Voluntary evacuations began in Hernando County started Tuesday at 8 a.m.
Projections say there is little chance of Hurricane Michael making a hard turn to the right, and into the peninsula.
In the Florida Panhandle, Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan bluntly advised residents who choose to ride out the storm that first responders won't be able to reach them during or immediately after Michael smashes into the coast.
"If you decide to stay in your home and a tree falls on your house or the storm surge catches you and you're now calling for help, there's no one that can respond to help you," Morgan said at a news conference.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott called Michael a "monstrous hurricane" with a devastating potential from high winds, storm surge and heavy rains. He declared a state of emergency for 35 Florida counties from the Panhandle to Tampa Bay, activated hundreds of Florida National Guard members and waived tolls to encourage those near the coast to evacuate inland.
"You can't hide from storm surge," Gov. Scott said during a Tuesday morning press conference. "We can rebuild your home, but we cannot rebuild your life."
The Associated Press contributed to this report