MIAMI Fla.(AP) – Michael gained new strength over warm tropical waters amid a forecast that it would swiftly intensify into a major hurricane before striking Florida’s northeast Gulf Coast, where frantic coastal residents were  boarding up homes and seeking evacuation routes away from the dangerous storm heading their way. A hurricane hunter plane that bounced into the swirling eye of Michael off the west tip of Cuba late Monday found wind speeds were rising even as forecasters warned the storm would reach major (Category 3) hurricane status with winds topping 111 mph.

Landfall is expected Wednesday on the northeastern Gulf Coast, where authorities warned of a potentially devastating strike.

The National Hurricane Center, in Miami said early Tuesday that, “On the forecast track, the center of Michael will continue to move over the southeastern Gulf of Mexico this morning, then move across the eastern Gulf of Mexico later today and tonight.  The center of Michael is expected to move inland over the Florida Panhandle or Florida Big Bend area on Wednesday.

The center added an ominous note, saying, “Strengthening is expected, and Michael is forecast to be a major hurricane at landfall in Florida. Weakening is expected after landfall as Michael moves through the southeastern United States” Wednesday night and Thursday.

As of 4 a.m. CST Tuesday, Michael’s top sustained winds had strengthened somewhat to 90 mph as it headed north-northwest at 12 mph. The storm was centered about 390 miles south of Apalachicola and 420 miles south of Panama City, Florida. Hurricane-force winds extended outward up to 40 miles from the core and tropical-storm-force winds went out 195 miles

Michael lashed western Cuba Monday with heavy rains and strong winds. Forecasters warned that Michael could dump up to a foot of rain in western Cuba, potentially triggering flash floods and mudslides in mountain areas.

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