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Wednesday, September 2, 1998 Published at 22:59 GMT 23:59 UK

World: Americas

Here comes Earl

Latest satellite image of Hurricane Earl

A hurricane with wind speeds of up to 160km-an-hour is gathering strength over the Gulf of Mexico and heading for the Gulf Coast of northern Florida.

BBC's Malcolm Brabant in Florida
Hurricane Earl is most likely to hit land in the middle of Wednesday night, local time, near Panama City in a thin strip of northern Florida known as "the Panhandle".

Florida's governor, Lawton Chiles, has declared a state of emergency in anticipation of major devastation, and the national guard is on stand-by.

The latest storm system has been behaving rather erratically during its formative stages, and forecasters have posted hurricane warnings along a huge swathe of coastline from Pascagoula in Mississippi down to central Florida.

"A hurricane is kind of like an elephant - it can go just about anywhere it pleases," said Cliff Lusk, spokesman for the state's Emergency Management Centre.

Residents and tourists in these casino-rich low-lying coastal areas have been ordered to leave, as widespread flooding is predicted.

Officials at the state's emergency centre in Tallahassee are predicting rainfall of 12 to 25cm and tidal surges of 2 to 3 metres above normal.

Tornadoes could be another dangerous by-product of the capricious cyclone system, the third hurricane so far of the 1998 Atlantic season.

Hurricanes Bonnie and Danielle preceded Earl, the former killing two people and causing more than $1bn damage.

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