As locals and visitors fled the coastal areas, Northwest Florida prepared for what could be one of the most dangerous hurricanes to strike the area in recent years.

According to the 4 p.m. National Hurricane Advisory, Hurricane Michael has become a major hurricane with winds of 120 mph. The storm was moving north toward Panama City and was expected to intensify before landfall. Once on land, it is expected to weaken rapidly and accelerate to the northeast.

“If you’re under an evacuation order, leave now,” Gov. Rick Scott said during a press conference in Walton County. “First responders are not coming out in the middle of this storm. If you are on the fence about whether to evacuate, don't be on the fence, do it. This storm may kill you.”

Some heeded local officials' warnings and by 4 p.m. Tuesday afternoon, just over 300 people had checked into a shelter at Freeport High School, despite officials' warning the public that shelters were not as comfortable as other options.

"If a shelter is your last resort, we will be happy to host you," a release from the county said. "Often times shelters are crowded, noisy, boring, short-staffed and have very little privacy," the release said.

Motorists streamed up evacuation routes Monday night and well into Tuesday, while many coastal hotels forced visitors to leave.

Scott said that when Michael makes landfall, probably around noon Wednesday, it could bring 110-mph winds to Walton County and drop a foot or more of rain on the region. He said points as far west as Pensacola might see sustained winds of 75 mph.

“Prepare for major flooding,” the governor said. “This is the most destructive hurricane to hit the Panhandle in decades.”

On Tuesday afternoon, President Donald Trump approved a pre-landfall emergency declaration. This declaration will provide important resources and assistance from the federal government, including personnel, equipment and supplies, as well as making available funding sources for emergency protective measures, according to a press release from Scott's office.

'Prepare for the worst'

The southern half of Walton County was placed under what local officials referred to as a mandatory evacuation notification Monday, while Okaloosa, Santa Rosa and Escambia counties urged those living near the coast to leave the area.

Those who stayed were being advised to prepare for what could be extensive periods of time without water, sewer and power.

A 3- to 6-foot storm surge was possible in Walton and portions of Okaloosa counties, heavy rainfall was likely and hurricane force winds could reach as far as Navarre, depending on where the storm comes ashore. The worst threat to human life would likely be storm surge, Scott said.

“Prepare for the worst,” he said.

Schools were closed across the area through Wednesday and Walton County announced that schools there would also be closed Thursday.

The possible closure of U.S. Highway 98 loomed as Hurricane Michael moved closer to the coast. The highway, as well as other roads, will be closed if water covers the pavement, creating dangerous conditions.

"We're not going to close the road because we think the water is going to rise," Okaloosa County Administrator John Hofstad said. "That’s a call made in the field."

Although flooding may force road closures, Hofstad said wind speed is usually a problem first. Bridges are typically closed when wind speeds reach between 35 and 45 miles per hour and may not reopen until after the storm.

Those closures also mean that folks living on places like Okaloosa Island are effectively cut off from the mainland.

"That's why we issue evacuation notices to get those people out of these areas," Hofstad said.

Once bridges are closed, water and sewer services will be shut off for the island dwellers, Hofstad said.

“Just bear with us, we will bring those utilities back up as soon as we can get the all clear,” Hofstad said in a press briefing Monday.

 
Sheltering from the storm

The first shelters opened in Okaloosa County at Davidson Middle School and Raider Arena of Northwest Florida State College. The Davidson shelter accepts those with special needs and is staffed by health department and public safety employees. As of late Tuesday afternoon, only a few dozen had arrived at the two shelters.

And the Gregg Chapel AME Life Center on Carson Drive, while not an official shelter, will open at noon for the next few days for those who need to get out of the weather.

"It's the thing to do," said the Rev. Cecil Williams, who added that he expects some homeless people will need a place to stay. "They'll be in here to eat this afternoon. It just happens that today is the day most of them come to eat here."

Walton County's first shelter at Freeport High School, accepts pets and those with disabilities. It can house up to 1,000 people, and when numbers start approaching that another shelter will be opened, according to Walton County spokesman Louis Svehla

"That’s why we issue evacuation notices to get those people out of these areas," Hofstad said.

Tourist ghost towns

Many of the region's visitors had already started to head home by midday Tuesday and normally bustling tourism areas were transformed into ghost towns. Major shopping hubs emptied out and some locations of restaurant staples like Waffle House and Starbucks were planning closures.

Destin Harbor was nearly empty Tuesday morning; the Destin Fishing Rodeo was put on hold for two days and a mandatory evacuation order was issued for all boats.

At Luther's Pontoon, Waverunner and Kayak Rentals, John Stephens and Ben Barcley said they spent 11 hours Monday moving the rental Waverunners and pontoons into dry storage. Both men were planning to ride out the storm.

"I've never left for a hurricane," said Stephens, who has lived in the area his entire life.

Boat Cap. Brantley Galloway left his boat in the water, but moved it from the harbor into the more protected Joe's Bayou. His plans for the storm were fluid, pun intended.

"I might stay on the boat during the storm," said Galloway, who added that he was eager to get his boat back to the harbor once the Destin Fishing Rodeo resumes.

Jeremy Cooper, a 42-year-old from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, was visiting Navarre with his wife and two kids. He was told on Monday that he would have to leave by noon on Tuesday.

They relocated to Gulf Shores.

"My kids are extremely depressed," he said. "They've been looking forward to (vacationing here) for a few months. But what can you do? You got to leave, you got to leave."

Preparations intensify

Gas stations, grocery stores and home improvement places saw a steady stream of customers stocking up for the storm. As of Tuesday morning, gasoline, generators, lumber, batteries, canned goods and bottled water could still be found locally.

The soup aisle and water aisle at one local grocery store was stripped bare. But area Publix stores had water displays throughout the store, with more on the way, according to one manager.

Several local home improvement stores still had generators and plywood Tuesday morning.

A stream of people worked hard Tuesday morning to fill up sand bags at Fort Walton Beach's maintenance yard on Hollywood Boulevard. Danielle Abraham and her mother, Michele Kinlock, worked together to load up the heavy red sand.

“It’s the flooding that concerns me,” said Kinlock, who has experienced many major storms, including Hurricane Opal in October 1995.

She said she is worried that her 72-year-old mother, who is from Pittsburgh and now lives in Fort Walton Beach, is going to have a heart attack because of her fear of Michael.

But many businesses had announced closures by Tuesday evening, including some local grocery stores and restaurants. Customers at the Starbucks at Uptown Station were greeted by a storm notice flapping on the door notifying them that the popular coffee stop was closing at 6 p.m. Tuesday and would reopen at 9 a.m. Thursday morning.

After the storm

During one of his many press conferences, the governor offered assurances that both state and federal resources would be available in the aftermath of the storm. He said the Federal Emergency Management Agency and a host of other agencies have sent personnel to Florida to work with officials at the state’s Emergency Operations Center.

Scott said National Guard troops and utility workers are also standing by, ready to be deployed when the storm has passed. Health care facilities have been notified that the state stands ready to provide supplies where needed, Scott said.

"Evacuations are not fun, they are not convenient … In Florida there are so many people looking to help you, there is no reason not to keep your family safe,” Scott said. “Michael is a massive storm. It could bring total devastation to parts of our state, especially in the Panhandle.”

Staff writers Tom McLaughlin, Jim Thompson, Kaylin Parker, Nathan Cobb and Wendy Victora contributed to this report.