By Devika Krishna Kumar
TALLAHASSEE, Fla., Oct 10 (Reuters) - Hurricane Michael grew into a potentially deadly Category 4 storm on Wednesday before it was due to smash into Florida's Gulf shore with towering waves and roof-shredding winds as 500,000 people were under evacuation orders and advisories.
Hurricane Michael was packing winds of up to 140 miles per hour (220 km per hour), hours before it was set to make landfall on Florida's Panhandle or Florida's Big Bend where it potentially could unleash devastating waves as high as 13 feet (4 meters), the National Hurricane Center (NHC) warned.
"The time for evacuating along the coast has come and gone. First responders will not be able to come out in the middle of the storm," said Florida Governor Rick Scott in a tweet early Wednesday. "If you chose to stay in an evacuation zone, you must SEEK REFUGE IMMEDIATELY."
Some of the storm's most significant early impact was to offshore energy production. U.S. producers in the Gulf cut oil production by about 40 percent and natural gas output by 28 percent on Tuesday, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement said.
President Donald Trump declared a state of emergency for the entire state of Florida, freeing up federal assistance to supplement state and local disaster responses.
Apalachicola Mayor Van Johnson said the city, which could suffer some of the worst of the storm surge, is under mandatory evacuation orders.
"My greatest concern is that some people are just now starting to take this storm seriously and are evacuating," he told CNN. "And I just hope the others that have not made that decision get out while the roads are still passably and before the bridges close."
The last NHC report said the fast-moving storm was about 100 miles from Apalachicola.
"Outer band of Hurricane Michael coming ashore here," Jon Ward in Panama City said on Twitter. "Light rain and thunder has just begun. Winds should be picking up in the next couple of hours.
Winds as strong as Michael is producing can inflict substantial damage to roofs and walls of even well-constructed homes, according to the National Weather Service.
NHC Director Ken Graham said Michael represented a "textbook case" of a hurricane system growing stronger as it drew near shore, in contrast to Hurricane Florence, which struck North Carolina last month after weakening in a slow, halting approach.
Hurricane-force winds extend about 45 miles from the center, with tropical storm-force winds reaching 185 miles, the NHC said.
The storm is likely to dump prodigious amounts of rain over Florida, Alabama and Georgia, as well as the Carolinas - still reeling from post-Florence flooding - and into Virginia. Up to a foot of rainfall (30 cm) is forecast for some areas.
The region should brace for "major infrastructure damage," specifically to electricity distribution, wastewater treatment systems and transportation networks, Jeff Byard, associate administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), told reporters on a conference call.
Byard said an estimated 500,000 people were under evacuation orders and advisories in Florida, where residents and tourists were fleeing low-lying areas in at least 20 counties stretching along 200 miles (322 km) of shore in the Panhandle and adjacent Big Bend region.
Among them was Betty Early, 75, a retiree who joined about 300 fellow evacuees huddled on makeshift bed rolls of blankets and collapsed cardboard boxes at an elementary school converted into an American Red Cross shelter in Panama City, near the storm's expected landfall.
She was unsure how well her old, wood-framed apartment block would hold up. "I'm blessed to have a place to come," she told Reuters. "My greatest concern is not having electricity, and living on a fixed income, losing my food."
A hurricane warning was posted along more than 300 miles (483 km) of the coast from the Florida-Alabama border south to the Suwannee River.
"If you don't follow warnings from officials this storm could kill you," said Scott, a Republican running for the U.S. Senate in November's congressional elections.
While the swiftly moving storm is not expected to linger over Florida for long, widespread heavy downpours will likely track inland to flood-stricken areas of the Carolinas even as rain-gorged rivers there begin to recede, National Weather Service meteorologist Ken Widelski told the conference call.
Scott has declared a state of emergency in 35 Florida counties, mostly encompassing rural areas known for small tourist cities, beaches, wildlife reserves and Tallahassee, the state capital.
Georgia Governor Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency on Tuesday for 92 counties in his state.
About 2,500 National Guard troops were deployed to assist with evacuations and storm preparations, and more than 4,000 others were on standby. Some 17,000 utility restoration workers were also on call.
The last major hurricane to hit the Panhandle was Hurricane Dennis in 2005, according to hurricane center data.
(Reporting by Devika Krishna Kumar in Tallahassee, Florida; additional reporting by Rod Nickel in Panama City, Florida, Susan Heavey and Roberta Rampton in Washington, Gina Cherelus and Barbara Goldberg in New York, Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee, Liz Hampton in Houston, Andrew Hay in New Mexico; writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Phil Berlowitz, Cynthia Osterman, Leslie Adler and Louise Heavens, William Maclean)
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