The most powerful hurricane on record to hit Florida’s Panhandle left wide destruction and at least five people dead and wasn’t nearly finished Thursday as it crossed Georgia, now as a tropical storm, toward the Carolinas, that are still reeling from epic flooding by Hurricane Florence.
The storm slammed into the Florida Panhandle with terrifying winds of 155 mph Wednesday, splintering homes and submerging neighborhoods before continuing its destructive charge inland across the Southeast.
Authorities said at least five people have died as a result of the storm. Four of those deaths have occurred in Gagsden County on the Panhandle, including a man killed by a tree falling on a home. WMAZ-TV reports an 11-year-old girl was also killed by a tree falling on a home in Seminole County, Georgia.
It was the most powerful hurricane to hit the continental U.S. in nearly 50 years.
Michael made landfall on the Florida Panhandle on Wednesday as a Category 4 storm, but around 8 p.m. ET, it was downgraded to a Category 1 storm and then eventually a a tropical storm.
- Michael made landfall as the strongest hurricane to hit the Florida Panhandle in recorded history, with its winds and storm surge wreaking havoc along the shore.
- The National Weather Service issued multiple tornado warnings in Georgia as Hurricane Michael pushed through the state, and local media report three of them may have touched down.
- The hurricane warning for the gulf coast has been discontinued. Storm surge warnings for parts of Florida have also ended.
- Around 5 a.m. ET Thursday, Michael’s center was moving through Georgia at 20 mph with maximum sustained winds of 50 mph.
- More than 250,000 residents throughout the Florida Panhandle were without power as of Wednesday afternoon.
- Hurricane-force winds will extend well inland across portions of the Florida Panhandle, southern Georgia and southeast Alabama, as Michael moves inland, according to the National Hurricane Center.
- Tropical storm conditions will likely affect portions of the southeast U.S. coast from northeast Florida through North Carolina.
- Among the other dangers: Flash-flooding with heavy rain; life-threatening storm surges up to 13 feet high; and devastating winds, not just in the Panhandle, but southern Alabama and Georgia, too.
- Six airports in the Panhandle have closed in anticipation of the storm’s impacts.
- See warnings and watches here.
News media in Macon, Georgia, reported that by early evening Wednesday, tornadoes had touched down near Roberta, Perry and Fort Valley in Georgia’s midstate region.
Crawford County officials said a possible tornado damaged five homes near Roberta. The county’s emergency management director told news media it touched down on Highway 128 and knocked down power lines and trees. No injuries were reported.
On Thursday, President Donald Trump approved a disaster declaration to provide federal funding to those impacted by the storm.
After daylight Thursday residents of north Florida would just be beginning to take stock of the enormity of the disaster.
Damage in Panama City near where Michael came ashore Wednesday afternoon was so extensive that broken and uprooted trees and downed power lines lay nearly everywhere. Roofs were peeled away, sent airborne, and homes were split open by fallen trees. Twisted street signs lay on the ground. Palm trees whipped wildly in the winds. More than 380,000 homes and businesses were without power at the height of the storm.
Vance Beu, 29, was staying with his mother at her home, Spring Gate Apartments, a complex of single-story wood frame buildings where they piled up mattresses around themselves for protection. A pine tree punched a hole in their roof and his ears even popped when the barometric pressure went lower. The roar of the winds, he said, sounded like a jet engine.
“It was terrifying, honestly. There was a lot of noise. We thought the windows were going to break at any time,” Beu said.
Sally Crown rode out Michael on the Florida Panhandle thinking at first that the worst damage was the many trees downed in her yard. But after the storm passed, she emerged to check on the cafe she manages and discovered a scene of breathtaking destruction.
“It’s absolutely horrendous. Catastrophic,” Crown said. “There’s flooding. Boats on the highway. A house on the highway. Houses that have been there forever are just shattered.”
A Panhandle man was killed by a tree that toppled on a home, Gadsden County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Anglie Hightower said. But she added emergency crews trying to reach the home were hampered by downed trees and debris blocking roadways. The debris was a problem in many coastal communities and still hundreds of thousands of people were also left without power.
Gov. Rick Scott announced afterward that thousands of law enforcement officers, utility crews and search and rescue teams would now go into recovery mode. He said “aggressive” search and rescue efforts would get underway.
“This morning, Florida’s Gulf Coast and Panhandle and the Big Bend are waking up to unimaginable destruction,” Scott said. “So many lives have been changed forever. So many families have lost everything. … This hurricane was an absolute monster.”
Michael sprang quickly from a weekend tropical depression, going from a Category 2 on Tuesday to a Category 4 by the time it came ashore. It forced more than 375,000 people up and down the Gulf Coast to evacuate as it gained strength quickly while crossing the eastern Gulf of Mexico toward north Florida. It moved so fast that people didn’t’ have much time to prepare, and emergency authorities lamented that many ignored the warnings and seemed to think they could ride it out.
In Panama City, plywood and metal flew off the front of a Holiday Inn Express. Part of the awning fell and shattered the glass front door of the hotel, and the rest of the awning wound up on vehicles parked below it.
“Oh my God, what are we seeing?” said evacuee Rachel Franklin, her mouth hanging open.
Based on its internal barometric pressure, Michael was the third most powerful hurricane to hit the U.S. mainland, behind the unnamed Labor Day storm of 1935 and Camille in 1969. Based on wind speed, it was the fourth-strongest, behind the Labor Day storm (184 mph, or 296 kph), Camille and Andrew in 1992.
It also brought the dangers of a life-threatening storm surge.
In Mexico Beach, population 1,000, the storm shattered homes, leaving floating piles of lumber. The lead-gray water was so high that roofs were about all that could be seen of many homes.
Hours earlier, meteorologists watched satellite imagery in complete awe as the storm intensified.
“We are in new territory,” National Hurricane Center Meteorologist Dennis Feltgen wrote on Facebook. “The historical record, going back to 1851, finds no Category 4 hurricane ever hitting the Florida panhandle.”
The storm is likely to fire up the debate over global warming. Scientists say global warming is responsible for more intense and more frequent extreme weather, such as storms, droughts, floods and fires. But without extensive study, they cannot directly link a single weather event to the changing climate.
After Michael left the Panhandle late Wednesday, Kaylee O’Brien was crying as she sorted through the remains of the apartment she shared with three roommates at Whispering Pines apartments, where the smell of broken pine trees was thick in the air. Four pine trees had crashed through the roof of her apartment, nearly hitting two people.
Her biggest worry: finding her missing 1-year-old Siamese cat, Molly.
“We haven’t seen her since the tree hit the den. She’s my baby,” a distraught O’Brien said, her face wet with tears.