Michael predicted to strengthen to Category 4 hurricane before landfall Wednesday

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal has declared a state of emergency for 92 counties as Hurricane Michael barrels toward the Gulf Coast.

Hurricane Michael was officially upgraded to a Category 3 system Tuesday afternoon, hours after a state of emergency was declared for 92 Georgia counties that could experience hurricane-force winds and life-threatening flash flooding over the next several days.

With the Category 3 designation by the National Hurricane Center, Michael became a "major hurricane" with winds of 125 mph and an expected Wednesday landfall. The National Hurricane Center projects it will be a Category 4 storm by the time it makes landfall.

The seven-day emergency declaration includes Columbus, Macon, Augusta, Savannah and all areas south of those cities.

RELATED: What is a state of emergency? Georgia braces for Hurricane Michael

“The state is mobilizing all available resources to ensure public safety ahead of Hurricane Michael,” Gov. Nathan Deal said in a statement. “In light of the storm’s forecasted track, I encourage Georgians in the affected counties to be prepared and remain vigilant.”

RELATED: The time to prepare for Hurricane Michael is right now

A map shows the areas under a state of emergency in advance of Hurricane Michael. (Credit: Georgia Emergency Management Agency)

Credit: Gov. Nathan Deal's office

icon to expand image

Credit: Gov. Nathan Deal's office

As of 11 p.m., Michael was approximately 220 miles south of Panama City, Fla., the NHC said.

RELATED: Hurricane tracker: Where is Hurricane Michael now?

Michael is now stronger than Hurricane Florence was when it made landfall in North Carolina last month, according to the National Hurricane Center.

Mandatory evacuations are underway for many communities along the Florida coast as the center of Hurricane Michael churns through the southern Gulf of Mexico and continues to pick up steam.

“If you aren’t prepared,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott said on Twitter, “you are running out of time.”

RELATED: How dangerous is a hurricane? Understanding hurricane categories

Michael is forecast to move northeast into Georgia on Wednesday night as a tropical storm.

Since noon Tuesday, “we've seen a well-defined eye develop,” Channel 2 meteorologist Brad Nitz said. “This has really taken on the structure of a very formidable hurricane.”

According to an executive order signed by Deal, the storm could have “significant inland impacts.” The state may face a shortage of petroleum products, food and other necessary emergency materials.

RELATED: Delta cancels some flights, relocates planes due to Hurricane Michael

RELATED: Delta waives fees for bags, pets-in-cabin at airports in Hurricane Michael's path

“We think we are ready,” Deal told Channel 2, adding that “Mother Nature can sometimes do strange things to us.”

Heavy rain, winds of 40-60 mph, severe storms, tornadoes and flooding are possible, especially in the southeast portion of the state.

Georgia Power is monitoring the hurricane and adjusting its response plans accordingly, a spokeswoman said.

Hurricane and tropical storm warnings and tropical storm watches have been issued for parts of South Georgia, and several southeast Georgia counties are under a flash flood watch. Nearly 30 counties in southwest Georgia are under a moderate flooding rain threat, and many face high or extreme wind threats, according to the National Weather Service.

RELATED: South Georgia college campuses closing in preparation of Hurricane Michael

Regardless of its path, Channel 2 meteorologist Karen Minton said the storm will bring plenty of rain across the state. The heaviest rain is expected south and east of Atlanta with 3 to 5 inches of accumulation. Some spots could see as much as 6 to 7 inches, she said.

There will be much less rain northwest of Atlanta on Wednesday and Thursday, but most of the state should get at least an inch, according to Channel 2.

The Florida coast is at highest risk for flooding and life-threatening storm surge. Storm surges could reach catastrophic levels for many communities along the Florida coast, Scott told Good Morning America.

"The potential of 12 feet of storm surge in some areas is just deadly," he said.

In addition to Georgia, states of emergency have been declared in parts of Florida and Alabama. Warnings are in effect for more than 300 miles of gulf coastline, according to the Hurricane Center.

About 120,000 people along the Florida Panhandle were ordered to clear out Tuesday, The Associated Press reported.

The Georgia Department of Transportation urged drivers evacuating the storm to avoid congested interstate highways. Officials said evacuees should think about going west of the storm's path, not just north, and consult Georgia's 511 information system to find the best route.

RELATED: Georgia DOT: Avoid interstates when evacuating for Hurricane Michael

Atlanta Motor Speedway announced Tuesday it is opening its campgrounds to evacuees. Basic RV and tent camp spots are available free of charge.

Those evacuating also have the opportunity for a free stay through Airbnb, the company announced Tuesday.

MORE: Atlanta Motor Speedway campgrounds open to evacuees

Unlike Florence, which inched over the Carolinas and dumped record-breaking rainfall on some areas, Michael is expected to move quickly across the Southeast.

Michael is also expected to be less destructive to Georgia than Hurricane Irma, which ravaged Georgia, Florida and the Caribbean last year, Nitz said.

» For a detailed forecast, visit The Atlanta Journal-Constitution weather page.

» Download The Atlanta Journal-Constitution app for weather alerts on-the-go.