Michael was lashing western Cuba late Monday morning with heavy rains and strong winds.
A storm is designated a Category 1 hurricane if it reaches speeds of 74 miles per hour (119 kph) or more, and a Category 3 hurricane at 111 miles per hour (178 kph) or more on the five-step Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale.
Astronomical King Tide cycles will cause extra high storm surge on portions of the Florida Gulf Coast with the highest 7-11 foot surge near Apalachicola to Crystal River, 4-6 feet near Crystal River to Anclote River, and 2-4 feet around Tampa Bay. On the forecast track, the center of Michael will move northward near the western tip of Cuba this afternoon and into the southeastern Gulf of Mexico by tonight.
Once the storm makes landfall on the Gulf Coast, it is expected to head northeast Wednesday and Thursday.
Hurricane watches have been issued for the Alabama-Florida border, meaning hurricane conditions are expected within the next 48 hours as the storm continues to rapidly intensify.
This is a map showing the forecast cone for Hurricane Michael, which strengthened from a tropical storm.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott issued an order for a state of emergency for 26 counties to rush preparations in the Panhandle and the Big Bend area, freeing up resources and activating 500 members of the Florida National Guard ahead of Tropical Storm Michael.
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"If this storm hit Panama City, Tampa could still have storm surge", said Scott, referring to two Florida cities about 600 kilometres apart by highway. Tropical storm watches extend farther south through the Tampa Bay area to Anna Maria Island and, to the west, along the Alabama coast.
A hurricane watch stretches from the Alabama/Florida border (between Mobile and Pensacola) eastward to the Suwannee River, and hurricane warnings will likely follow for most or all of the area.
A Hurricane Warning is in effect for western Cuba.
Scott warned that Michael could reach land as a Category 2 hurricane, with winds in excess of 100 miles per hour.
"This storm will be life-threatening and extremely risky".
The NHC forecasters said the storm has become better organized Monday morning, and the westerly wind shear that was supposed to curtail its strengthening hasn't had the desired effect.
Michael's trek to Florida is affecting politics in the state.
Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, who is the Democratic nominee for governor, had planned to campaign in South Florida Monday and Tuesday, but he said he would return to Tallahassee to help with storm preparations.