Hurricane Michael made landfall near Mexico Beach, Florida, on Wednesday afternoon as a Category 4 storm — just shy of a Category 5 and the strongest ever to hit that part of the state in recorded history.
Information on casualties wasn’t immediately available, Florida emergency officials said after the storm crossed land about 20 miles southeast of Panama City at around 1:30 p.m. ET with maximum sustained winds of 155 mph.
“THIS IS A WORST CASE SCENARIO for the Florida Panhandle!!Listen to your local emergency officials. Stay Inside & Survive,” the National Weather Service tweeted, quoting Director Louis Uccullini.
“We expect conditions across the Panhandle to begin deteriorating rapidly,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott said. “Now the storm is here. It is not safe to travel across the Panhandle.”
The latest on the storm:
- More than 285,000 customers in Florida and more than 72,000 in Georgia and Alabama were without power.
- More than 375,000 Florida residents were under evacuation orders.
- The storm was packing maximum sustained winds of 155 mph.
At 5 p.m. ET, the eye was approaching southeastern Alabama and southwest Georgia with life-threatening storm surge and catastrophic winds of 125 mph, the National Weather Service said — downgrading it to a Category 3 hurricane as it churned over land.
The weather service said the core of Michael would move across southeastern Alabama and southwestern Georgia through the evening before heading northeastward to the Southeast through Thursday and then off the Mid-Atlantic coast late Thursday and Friday.
Michael became one of the worst storms the Panhandle has ever faced. As the eye moved over the area, the National Weather Service warned people not to go outside in the “relative calm” because winds would pick up swiftly.
Hurricane-force winds will extend from the eye of the storm by 45 miles, the National Hurricane Center said, and less severe tropical storm-force winds will extend up to 185 miles. Parts of Florida and Georgia were under tornado warnings until early Thursday.
“The historical record, going back to 1851, finds no Category 4 hurricane ever hitting the Florida panhandle,” Dennis Feltgen, a meteorologist fore the National Hurricane Center, wrote in a Facebook post Wednesday.
Storm surge could be most catastrophic on the Florida coast, at nine to 14 feet. “The water will come miles inshore and can easily rise over the roofs of houses,” Scott said, adding that even two feet of storm surge could be deadly.
Lisa Dawn Parker, 51, decided to stay behind in Panama City Beach with her boyfriend. They watched from a sixth-floor apartment as winds tore the roof off of a beach resort.
“The resort next to us is completely demolished,” Parker said. “The windows are blown out. The whole front of it’s gone.”
“We didn’t think it was going to be worse than Ivan,” a scared Parker said, referring to the 2004 hurricane that killed more than 50 people across the Southeast. “We don’t know why we stayed.”
More than 375,000 residents in dozens of Florida counties were under evacuation orders Wednesday, but Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said some residents didn’t have time to flee.
“If you failed to heed a warning for any reason, your goal should be to elevate as high as you can and get into a facility that you think can withstand the winds at this point and hope for the best,” Long said. “Those who stick around to experience storm surge don’t typically live to tell about it, unfortunately.”
Brad Kieserman, vice president of disaster operations for Red Cross, said about 6,000 people were already in shelters in five states, about 5,000 of them in Florida.
Kieserman told reporters that he wouldn’t be surprised more than 20,000 people were in shelters by Thursday or Friday.
Electric utilities reported that more than 285,000 customers were without power in Florida, along with more than 36,000 in Alabama and more than 35,000 in Georgia.
“I do know that there are some businesses that are already gone,” Linda Albrecht, a city council member in Mexico Beach, told NBC affiliate WESH of Orlando.
“All I can say is it has to be a nightmare,” Albrecht said. “It’s devastating. This happened so quickly.”
A Weather Channel crew even tried to leave its base in Apalachicola but couldn’t because storm conditions made it impossible to drive, meteorologist Mike Bettes said on Twitter.
The Bay County Sheriff’s Office issued a shelter-in-place order early Wednesday, and the county’s Department of Emergency Services said officers could no longer respond to calls.
The National Weather Service in Tallahassee, about 20 miles inland, said: “It’s about too late to find shelters with #Michael moving in right now. The best thing to do is find shelter in your own place away from any windows.”
Officials also shut down the Hathaway Bridge, which connects Panama City and Panama City Beach and is a main route in and out of the cities.
Torrential rains, destructive winds and possible tornadoes will also extend well inland, forecasters said, and parts of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and the Carolinas will likely be hard-hit. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency for 108 counties.
In North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper issued a state of emergency ahead of Michael. Tropical storm warnings and storm surge watches were issued for parts of the coast, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The state was pummeled last month by the deadly Hurricane Florence.
Peter Macias, a spokesman for the Red Cross, said about 4,000 people entered nearly 70 evacuation centers across the Florida Panhandle and Alabama overnight.
On Tuesday, President Donald Trump signed the emergency declaration requested by Scott for 35 Florida counties. Scott said Wednesday morning that he had updated the president on the storm and that Trump had offered any necessary resources “as we prepare to respond to this massive and catastrophic storm.”
Government offices close in those 35 counties. While Tuesday was the deadline for Floridians to register to vote, residents will be allowed to register on the day those offices reopen, the Florida secretary of state’s office said in a statement. The state Democratic Party filed a lawsuit Tuesday saying that the one-day extension was insufficient and confusing.