Gov. Rick Scott and electric utilities say they are poised for a quick response to Hurricane Michael, which officials say could be the strongest storm to hit the Panhandle in decades, causing life-threatening storm surge and putting some areas in the dark for more than a week.
As rains from the powerful storm started to reach the Panhandle on Tuesday afternoon, about 15,000 workers lined up by Gulf Power, Duke Energy Florida, Florida Power & Light and public utilities have been positioned to respond to anticipated widespread outages.
The companies and the Florida Municipal Electric Association also reported having at least 2,000 more workers from companies throughout the South and as far away as Texas, Nebraska and Indiana.
“We train year-round for these types of scenarios,” Gulf Power spokesman Gordon Paulus said in a statement. “That training and developing of skills has really paid off in helping us quickly and safely get our customers’ power back on.”
Paulus said crews from the Pensacola-based utility restored power to 26,000 customers in less than two days of Tropical Storm Gordon in September. But Paulus added that Michael is expected to be much stronger and outages are expected to extend more than a few days.
“We’re going to do everything we can to get our utilities to share resources, to share materials, whatever the needs are,” Scott said Tuesday afternoon.
Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, the Democratic candidate for governor, said his city’s utility has called in “six times” its normal staffing through mutual-aid agreements with other utilities.
“Folks are ready from the government side, but we need our citizens to also be ready,” said Gillum.
In 2016, Scott clashed with Gillum over the city’s response to Hurricane Hermine.
In a lesson learned from Hermine, Gillum said city and Leon County officials met Monday with neighborhood leaders about keeping an eye on vulnerable residents.
“We had not done that before,” Gillum said. “My city was not practiced for about 30 years before Hurricane Hermine.”
Michael has the potential to be the strongest storm in the region since Hurricane Eloise swept across Bay County in September 1975 with 110 mph winds.
Hurricane Opal carried 100 mph winds when it hit Pensacola Beach in October 1995. Hurricane Ivan made landfall near Gulf Shores, Ala., at 105 mph in September 2004. And Hurricane Dennis was at 105 mph when it hit Santa Rosa Island in July 2005.
As of 2 p.m. Tuesday, Michael, the 13th named storm of the Atlantic season, was located about 335 miles south of Panama City, moving north at 12 mph with maximum sustained winds of 110 mph.
The latest forecast projected landfall Wednesday afternoon somewhere between Pensacola and Apalachicola as a Category 2 or Category 3 hurricane.
A storm-surge warning was in effect from the Okaloosa-Walton County Line to the Anclote River near Tarpon Springs, and a hurricane warning had been issued from the Alabama state line to the Suwannee River in Dixie County.
The AAA Auto Group reported that Michael isn’t expected to cause a “significant” spike in pump prices as its path remains east of most energy infrastructure such as oil rigs and refineries. But “long lines at gas stations in the Panhandle” have left at least some stations empty as fuel trucks rush to meet demand.
"Gasoline outages in the Panhandle are spotty, but not widespread," said AAA spokesman Mark Jenkins. "There continues to be plenty of fuel supply in the state, but getting a tanker truck to a gas station --- before it runs out of fuel --- can be a challenge during a time of such high demand.”
Scott dismissed reports of “widespread” fuel outages, while appearing Tuesday afternoon at the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office in Eastpoint.
“The state Emergency Response Team has been holding regular calls with the fuel industry and ports in Florida to ensure they can get gas to the area safely,” Scott said. “I was just on a call with them, and they’re working hard to make sure we keep getting gas in the state.”
Fuel deliveries will be suspended when winds reach 45 mph.
Tallahassee International Airport announced that flights would be suspended Wednesday, with commercial flights expected to resume at 8 a.m. Thursday.
Scott has activated 2,500 members of the Florida National Guard, while the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has 150 law enforcement officers positioned for search-and-rescue missions and the Florida Highway Patrol has 350 troopers in the region on 12-hour shifts as a response to the storm.
Scott has lifted tolls across the Panhandle to help with mandatory evacuations. Such evacuations been ordered for coastal and low-lying areas of Bay, Dixie, Franklin, Gulf, Jackson, Levy, Okaloosa, Wakulla and Walton counties. Voluntary evacuation orders have been issued for areas of Calhoun, Gadsden, Hernando, Jefferson, Leon, Liberty, Pasco, Santa Rosa and Taylor counties, according to the state Division of Emergency Management website.
Scott said he has discussed federal assistance with President Donald Trump, who was in Orlando on Monday to address a convention of police chiefs.
Trump on Tuesday signed a pre-landfall emergency declaration that ensures federal resources are available before and after the storm in the 35 counties where Scott declared state of emergency.
Trump also tweeted his own warning to Floridians on Tuesday.
“It is imperative that you heed the directions of your State and Local Officials. Please be prepared, be careful and be SAFE!” Trump tweeted just after noon.
“Hurricane on its way to the Florida Pan Handle with major elements arriving tomorrow,” Trump continued. “Could also hit, in later stage, parts of Georgia, and unfortunately North Carolina, and South Carolina, again... ...Looks to be a Cat. 3 which is even more intense than Florence. Good news is, the folks in the Pan Handle can take care of anything. @fema and First Responders are ready - be prepared!”
The misspelling of Panhandle was Trump’s.
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam noted the Florida Forest Service has three “chainsaw strike teams” ready to respond, along with a team mobilizing to support urban search-and-rescue operations.
Putnam’s department also reported more than 500,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture meals, and at least 20 truckloads of ice, would be available for shelters after the storm.