Editor's Note: This story has been updated throughout.
MIAMI — A hard-charging Hurricane Michael strengthened to a ferocious Category 4 storm overnight, with powerful winds reaching 145 mph as it heads toward the Florida Panhandle on track to strike somewhere near Panama City Wednesday afternoon.
At 8 a.m. Wednesday, National Hurricane Center forecasters the hurricane was located about 90 miles south, southwest of Panama City, moving north at 13 mph. In the coming hours, it could strengthen more, forecasters warned.
Hurricane-force winds extend about 45 miles from Michael's center. Tropical storm winds reach 185 miles.
Winds climbed quickly Wednesday morning, increasing from 140 mph to 145 mph in just two hours. By 7 a.m., blustery tropical storm-force conditions had already begun to spread across parts of the Gulf Coast. About 90 miles southwest of Panama City, a NOAA buoy recorded sustained 60 mph winds and gusts up to 76 mph, forecasters said.
Dangerous storm surge is expected to stretch from Homosassa Springs to Panama City, with the hardest areas around Apalachicola Bay, where hurricane center director Ken Graham said surge could push up rivers as much as 10 to 15 miles. Water could rise nine to 13 feet of above normal levels near the Tyndall Air Force Base and between four and six feet around Cedar Key.
As Michael churns across warm Gulf waters, forecasters warn it could strengthen even more and slam the coast with sustained winds of 145 mph. Dangerous hurricane-force winds could extend across the Panhandle and into southern Georgia and southeastern Alabama.
If it lands as a Cat 4, Michael will be the first in the Panhandle since records started. The last major storms occurred more than a decade ago, when Hurricane Ivan made landfall in 2004 near Pensacola followed by Dennis in 2005 on Santa Rosa Island. Both were Cat 3 storms.
State emergency officials have repeatedly warned residents to heed warnings to evacuate as the storm quickly intensified Monday and Tuesday. Mandatory evacuations were ordered in Wakulla, Franklin, Gulf and Bay counties. Voluntary evacuations were issued for Santa Rosa, Hernando, Leon and Liberty counties.