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‘Life-threatening’ storm surge expected as Hurricane Michael approaches Florida

Hurricane Michael strengthened to a Category 3 as it approaches Florida’s Panhandle. In anticipation of landfall Wednesday, the president has already approved emergency federal funding. William Brangham speaks with Ken Graham, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, for the latest forecast, including the potential for a “life-threatening” storm surge and extended power outages.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Our other major story tonight is Hurricane Michael. It is roaring toward the Florida Panhandle and rapidly growing into a major threat.

    Landfall is expected tomorrow, possibly near Panama City, and 180,000 people are now under evacuation orders. So far, Florida, Alabama and Georgia have declared emergencies.

    William Brangham takes it from there.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right, Judy.

    In advance of Hurricane Michael, the president today approved an emergency declaration for Florida that authorizes federal assistance for preparations and disaster relief.

    For more on this storm, I'm joined now by Ken Graham, director of the National Hurricane Center, based in Miami.

    Mr. Graham, thank you very much for being here.

    Can you just give us the latest on this storm?

  • Ken Graham:

    Yes, we just had the latest information, and now we're at Category 3, winds 120 miles an hour with this system, so some strengthening, as forecast.

    We're already about 270 miles south-southwest of Apalachicola, moving north at 12 miles an hour. You can see a very healthy system with the eye in the center and some convection, so really looking at a system that is large. And you are already starting to see some of these rain bands work their way northward in the Gulf of Mexico.

  • William Brangham:

    And your sense right now, the track is still that it's likely to hit somewhere in the Northern Panhandle, around Panama City?

  • Ken Graham:

    Yes, that's what it looks like.

    And a lot of the messaging that we're talking about is also about the size. So you're looking at landfall tomorrow afternoon, right — right on the upper portion of the Gulf Coast here in the Florida Panhandle.

    But this is an important point here. Look at the size of the winds. This is the tropical-storm-force winds really looking about 185 miles away from the center; 40 miles away from the center is the hurricane-force winds. So this is not just a center. And it's really outside the cone, these impacts.

    This is a large swathe of winds making its way northward. And some of that could — these rain bands could even arrive as early as tonight.

  • William Brangham:

    I understand that Florida is undergoing what's known as a king tide right now. Can you explain what that is and why we would care about that with regards to storm surge?

  • Ken Graham:

    Yes, really, some of that tide going on just adds some more water to the whole situation, because when we really look at this, we have the rainfall threat, of course, that we have been looking at, but look at these values related to your question.

    I mean, it's an amazing amount of water, life-threatening situation when it comes to the water. So, if you take in those tides, which are already a few feet above what they should be, and then you add the storm surge on top of that, both of those numbers combined nine to 13 feet of storm surge.

    That inundation above ground, that's absolutely, completely life-threatening, and not just around the center and to the right side, far away. Look at Cedar Key, six to nine feet, down towards Crystal River, four to six feet. As far away as Tampa, you could see areas of two to four feet. And even Pensacola, you could see those values, so a very life-threatening situation when it comes to the water.

    And, by the way, 50 percent of the fatalities in a tropical system is actually the storm surge. So that's what we need to make sure people are safe from, out of those risk zones.

  • William Brangham:

    I saw on the earlier map that you were showing simply the size of this. And this is likely to carry across the Southeastern United States as the week progresses; is that right?

  • Ken Graham:

    Yes. And that — it's an important point that you make there, because it's a situation that you have these large winds, and you also have the rainfall. So all that rain could actually start saturating the soil.

    So, even after landfall, you know, looking at a very powerful hurricane, you're still, in Georgia, a tropical storm. Look at this, in the Carolinas, still a tropical storm. So, if you take all that rain, plus that wind, you are going to see power outages very devastating right along the actual coast of the Panhandle of Florida.

    But some of those power outages could actually spread to Georgia, maybe even the Carolinas with time, because saturated soil, and the wind, you start knocking down trees and power lines. We got to get people ready. Some of these power outages could last well more than a week.

  • William Brangham:

    And, lastly, your sense is that this forecast is pretty solid now. You don't see any real change in its track?

  • Ken Graham:

    No, we really don't at this point. I mean, you're looking at the satellite.

    Every — the forecast is really — really on track, not only with the intensity, but also with the track. And it's interesting with the storm surge. Small changes in these systems can make a big difference on the ground. But, as a result, we really need everybody ready in these areas.

    And if you think about preparedness, you're really going to start seeing those tropical-storm-force winds arriving tonight. Some of the higher tides already arriving, so people need to wrap up their preparedness and be in a safe place by tonight.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Ken Graham at the National Hurricane Center, thank you so much.

  • Ken Graham:

    You bet.

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