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Hurricane Michael, now a Category 3 storm, bears down on Florida Panhandle

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Hurricane Michael strengthened to a Category 3 storm over the Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday while bearing down on the Florida Panhandle’s, which was bracing for fierce winds and life-threatening flooding.

The storm was expected to begin lashing the coast with tropical-storm force as soon as Tuesday night. Michael was then forecast to make landfall on Wednesday as a major hurricane, meaning at least Category 3 force, the National Hurricane Center said. A storm with that power hasn’t struck the Florida Panhandle since Hurricane Dennis in 2005.

Michael formed quickly, only reaching hurricane strength on Monday, giving Floridians little time to prepare. Gov. Rick Scott warned the storm poses deadly risks and urged people to follow local evacuation orders. Counties along the coast — including Bay, Dixie, Franklin, Gulf, Jackson, Levy, Okaloosa, Wakulla and Walton — ordered evacuations, according to the governor’s office. Other counties urged people to leave.

“Hurricane Michael is a massive storm that could bring total devastation for parts of our state,” Scott said early Tuesday. Scott emphasized the threat from flooding, which can pose a greater risk to lives than hurricane winds. A coastal area in Florida between Mexico Beach and Keaton Beach could see storm surge of 9 to 13 feet, according to the hurricane center.