Strengthening Hurricane Michael aims for Panhandle

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Tropical Storm Michael reached hurricane strength Monday as it moved north into the Gulf of Mexico, and forecasters expect it to get even stronger before landfall on the Florida Panhandle.

The storm’s projected path shows Michael staying west of peninsular Florida, making a landfall somewhere along the Panhandle on Wednesday.  Under that track, the Tampa Bay area would still experience some wind, rain, and some coastal flooding.

On Monday morning, the National Weather Service issued a storm surge watch from Navarre to Anna Maria Island, including Tampa Bay.

A tropical storm watch was issued from Suwannee River to Anna Maria Island, which also includes Tampa Bay. Hurricane watches have been issued for the Florida Panhandle and Big Bend area.

As of Monday evening , Hurricane Michael had winds of 90 mph and is moving through deep, warm water as it entered the Gulf of Mexico. It has the potential to undergo rapid intensification as it crosses the Gulf and is expected to become a Category 3 major hurricane by the time it makes landfall somewhere in northwest Florida.

LINK: Track Hurricane Michael on

While the storm will pass well west of Tampa Bay, the area will see gusty south and southeast winds with showers Monday through Wednesday. As the storm turns northeast near the Florida panhandle, the winds will shift southwest. 

Water levels along the west coast of the Bay Area could rise. Tampa Bay itself could see up to 4 feet of storm surge.

“We’ve seen this happen many times with storms, and they’ve just start to bring all that water with them,” explained FOX 13’s meteorologist Dave Osterberg, “and they’ve pushed that water in.”

Anticipating the need to use school buildings as shelters, Citrus County decided to cancel classes for Tuesday and Wednesday -- the only Bay Area district to do so. Florida State University, in the storm's path, will close for the rest of the week.

Governor Rick Scott ordered a state of emergency Sunday for 26 counties in the Panhandle and Big Bend area, and expanded the order to cover most of the Bay Area today. The move will free up resources for storm preparation and recovery efforts. 

"This storm will be life-threatening and extremely dangerous," Scott said during a press conference. "If this storm hit Panama City, Tampa could still have storm surge. Every family must be prepared."

Panama City is about 375 miles away from Tampa. Scott also activated members of the Florida National Guard ahead of the storm.

LINK: More Hurricane Michael maps & models