Hurricane Michael takes aim at Florida after fatal flooding in Central America

Hurricane Michael was expected to strengthen on Tuesday in the Gulf of Mexico, taking aim at the Florida panhandle, where residents were implored to get out of harm's way ahead of life-threatening waves, winds and rains, Reutersreports.

Tens of thousands of people have been ordered to evacuate in Wakulla, Gulf and Bay counties. Michael could be a Category 3 storm when it makes landfall, which is expected on Wednesday, becoming the most powerful storm to strike the panhandle in at least a decade.

"For those considering evacuation, I can't stress strongly enough the importance of leaving as early as possible," Bay County Sheriff Tommy Ford said on Facebook. "Evacuation routes can quickly turn into traffic nightmares. Please evacuate now."

Michael was a Category 1 storm, with sustained winds of up to 90 miles per hour (150 kph), and gaining strength after it skirted Cuba's western tip, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) said early on Tuesday.

Coastal storm surges of up to 12 feet (3.7 meters) are expected along the panhandle. As much as a foot (30 cm) of rain is forecast across Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, the center reported.

The NHC warned that both could trigger deadly flooding and that residents within the hurricane warning zone should also "prepare for life-threatening winds."

Florida Governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in 35 counties along the panhandle and Florida's Big Bend regions. About 1,250 National Guard soldiers were aiding the process and more than 4,000 troops placed on standby, Scott tweeted.

State offices, schools and universities were to close on Tuesday through the end of the week in panhandle counties. Lines at gasoline stations were growing as people prepared to leave. Those who planned to stay emptied grocery store shelves of water and other supplies throughout the day on Monday.

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