Peak hurricane season may be drawing to a close, but not before potentially dealing the U.S. its biggest hit of the year.

Hurricane Michael strengthened to a Category 2 storm Tuesday morning, October 9 as it charged toward Florida's northeast Gulf Coast, predicted to make landfall in Florida’s Panhandle Wednesday afternoon, October 10, as a Category 4 storm, according to the National Weather Service.

“Hurricane Michael is a monstrous storm, and the forecast keeps getting more dangerous,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott said during an appearance at the state’s emergency operations center in Tallahassee on Tuesday, October 9.

He also warned that "Hurricane Michael is forecast to be the most destructive storm to hit the Florida Panhandle in decades.”

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On Tuesday, October 9 Hurricane Michael's top sustained winds increased to 100 mph, and will likely reach at least 110 mph before bashing the Florida Panhandle with a "life-threatening" storm surge, heavy rainfall and possible tornados on Wednesday, October 10, according to the National Hurricane Center.

A Tuesday afternoon update from CNN said that tropical-storm-force winds will be felt in the area starting early Wednesday, and mandatory or voluntary evacuation orders have been issued in at least 16 Florida counties along and near the state's Panhandle and Big Bend coasts.

About 3.7 million people are under hurricane warnings, in the Panhandle and Big Bend regions as well as parts of southeastern Alabama and southern Georgia. Tropical storm warnings cover a further 3.1 million people in the three states and there are warnings for 300 miles of coastline.

According to the CNN report on Hurricane Michael, threats include the following:

  • Storm surges of nine to 12 feet could slam the coast from roughly Apalachicola to Cedar Key, Florida, with only slightly lower surges farther to the west along the Panhandle coast. "That means the water will come miles in shore and could easily be over the roofs of houses,” Scott said.
  • Up to 12 inches of rain could fall in Florida's Panhandle and Big Bend areas, southeastern Alabama and southern Georgia, while parts of the Carolinas—still recovering from Hurricane Florence in some coastal areas—and southern Virginia could see up to six inches, the Hurricane Center reported.
  • Tornadoes could spawn as a result of the storm in the Southeast on Tuesday night (October 9) into Wednesday and Thursday (October 10-11), according to forecasters.
  • Damaging winds threaten Florida as well as southeastern Alabama and southern Georgia. If Hurricane Michael’s core comes ashore as a Category 2 or higher, it would be the strongest storm in terms of wind speed to make landfall in the country this year.

Panama City Beach is forecast to bear the brunt of the storm. Panama City's airport will be closed Wednesday, October 10 when Hurricane Michael is expected to make landfall. All major airlines canceled flights to the city on Wednesday. Tallahassee is also in the path of the hurricane.

“We haven't had any cancellations for meetings due to Hurricane Michael,” said Gary Stogner, senior marketing director of Visit Tallahassee told Meetings Today on Tuesday, October 9.

“Given the current anticipated track of Hurricane Michael and its extended impact over the Panhandle, some residents on the upper Gulf Coast may opt for areas farther inland—south and central Georgia and Alabama," he added. "But most of our hotels now have very limited availability, but that changes hourly.

"Typically, Tallahassee hotels fill with displaced residents and visitors and emergency crews rather quickly when a hurricane threatens south and central Florida.

“We won't know the long-term impact on planned meetings until after the storm makes landfall and moves [as predicted] northeast into Georgia and South Carolina,” Stogner continued.

“I suspect it will have minimal impact as we anticipate some power outages due to downed trees and power lines, but power is typically restored rather quickly,” he concluded.

Pensacola is another destination within the predicted path of Hurricane Michael. Visit Pensacola Marketing & Communications Director Nicole Stacey supplied Meetings Today with the following update.

“In light of Hurricane Michael, Visit Pensacola is preparing and taking all precautions as the storm grows near for its staff, the community and visitors in the area,” Stacey said.

“The Pensacola and Perdido Key Visitor Information Centers will be closed Wednesday, October 10.  

“We did have the Florida Association of Destination Marketing Organizations (FADMO) cancel their annual meeting which was scheduled for this week. They will look to reschedule at a later date. 

“We are continuing to monitor and make updates to our site as we receive but encourage everyone to stay updated on current weather conditions,” she added.

“For official updates please follow Escambia County Emergency Management.”

VISIT FLORIDA’s current response to the threat is as follows:

VISIT FLORIDA is currently monitoring Hurricane Michael and is in constant communication with the State Emergency Operations Center.

On Sunday, October 7 Gov. Rick Scott issued Executive Order 18-276 declaring a state of emergency in Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton, Holmes, Washington, Bay, Jackson, Calhoun, Gulf, Gadsden, Liberty, Franklin, Leon, Wakulla, Jefferson, Madison, Taylor, Hamilton, Suwannee, Lafayette, Dixie, Columbia, Gilchrist, Levy and Citrus counties.

[On Monday, October 8], Gov. Scott expanded Executive Order 18-276 to include Bradford, Pasco, Hernando, Pinellas, Hillsborough, Manatee, Alachua, Union and Baker counties.

Evacuations are handled at the county level.

VISIT FLORIDA has taken the following actions in response to Hurricane Michael:

  • On Monday, October 8, VISIT FLORIDA activated the Homepage Banner and Florida Now page on our consumer-facing website, VISITFLORIDA.com, to provide weather alerts and official resources to assist visitors with making the most informed travel planning decisions possible.
  • Florida Now provides links to the latest official information such as traffic updates, gas availability and other timely resources.
  • The Florida Now page also links to VISIT FLORIDA's Current Travel Safety Information page to provide in-depth details and links to official sources such as the National Hurricane Center, FloridaDisaster.org, Florida 511 and others.
  • It also provides live reports via Twitter from locations around Florida, as well as real-time social feeds of photos, videos and other postings by those in the state using #FloridaNow and #LoveFL. This allows potential visitors to keep up with the latest information from local sources.
  • Through VISIT FLORIDA's partnership with Expedia, the Emergency Accommodations Module was activated, providing travelers and evacuees with real-time information on accommodations availability throughout Florida and neighboring states. 
  • The Emergency Accommodations module was added to VISIT FLORIDA's Current Travel Safety Information and Florida Now and pages.
  • VISIT FLORIDA’s four Official Florida Welcome Centers, located at major access points into and out of the state, transitioned into emergency information centers offering the latest details on evacuation notices, accommodations and gas availability, and road closures, as well as providing a much-needed respite for travelers and their pets.
  • VISIT FLORIDA staff are participating in daily conference calls with the State Emergency Operations Center and Emergency Support Functions 18 (ESF-18) leadership to provide updates on action steps that could assist the state's response and recovery efforts.
  • VISIT FLORIDA's internal crisis response team remains in constant contact with our destination marketing partners and local emergency contacts to ensure they are aware of VISIT FLORIDA's pre-storm efforts, and the resources available to them and their visitors.
  • Visitors to the state should continue to monitor the progress of the Hurricane Michael over the next several days.

Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism shared the following update on Hurricane Michael:

According to Ally Mills Dorrough, public relations coordinator for Alabama’s Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism, “A Tropical Storm Warning has been issued by the National Weather Service for Mobile and Baldwin Counties in Alabama, including our areas of Gulf Shores, Orange Beach and Fort Morgan.

“A Hurricane Warning is in effect from the Alabama-Florida border east to Suwanee River on the Florida Panhandle,” she continued. “Our area is expected to get tropical storm-force winds ranging from 39 to 74 miles per hour Tuesday evening through Wednesday.

“We’re in contact with the cities of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach and the Baldwin County Emergency Management Agency and are monitoring information from local, state and federal agencies,” she added.

“Currently, the storm is predicted to make landfall between Destin and Apalachicola on the Florida panhandle by Wednesday, October 10. Local impacts depend heavily on how this system evolves.”

[Editor's Note: Information on Hurricane Michael is changing by the minute, so make sure to check in with major news and weather outlets for the latest updates. Click here for The New York Times' live updates].

[From the Meetings Today Archives: Masters of Disaster -- Planners Share Hurricane Stories]