By JAY REEVES, BRENDAN FARRINGTON
Thursday, October 11, 2018
PANAMA CITY, FLA. -- Powerful Hurricane Michael slammed into the Florida Panhandle with terrifying winds of 249 kilometres an hour on Wednesday, splintering homes and submerging neighbourhoods before continuing its destructive march inland across the U.S.Southeast. It was the most powerful hurricane to hit the continental United States in nearly 50 years and at least one death was reported during its passage.
Supercharged by abnormally warm waters in the Gulf of Mexico, the Category 4 storm crashed ashore in the early afternoon near Mexico Beach, a tourist town about midway along the Panhandle, a 320-kilometre stretch of white-sand beach resorts, fishing towns and military bases. After it ravaged the Panhandle, Michael entered southern Georgia as a Category 3 hurricane - the most powerful in recorded history for that part of the neighbouring state.
In northern Florida, Michael battered the shoreline with sideways rain, powerful gusts and crashing waves, swamping streets and docks, flattening trees, stripped away leaves, shredding awnings and peeling away shingles. It also set off transformer explosions and knocked out power to more than 388,000 homes and businesses.
A man was killed by a tree toppling on a home, Gadsden County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Anglie Hightower said. She said authorities got a call on Wednesday evening that the man was trapped, but rescue crews were hampered by downed trees and debris blocking roadways. Authorities haven't yet confirmed the man's name.
Damage in Panama City, Fla., was extensive, with broken and uprooted trees and power lines down nearly everywhere. Roofs were peeled off and homes split open by fallen trees. Twisted street signs lay on the ground.
Residents emerged in the early evening to assess damage when rains stopped, although skies were still overcast and windy.
Vance Beu, 29, was staying with his mother at her apartment, Spring Gate Apartments, a small complex of single-story woodframe apartment buildings. A pine tree punched a hole in their roof and he said the roar of the storm sounded like a jet engine as the winds accelerated. Their ears even popped as the barometric pressure dropped.
"It was terrifying, honestly.
There was a lot of noise. We thought the windows were going to break at any time. We had the inside windows kind of barricaded in with mattresses," Mr. Beu said.
Kaylee O'Brien was crying as she sorted through the remains of the apartment she shared with three roommates at the 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.
She was missing her one-year-old Siamese cat, Molly.
"We haven't seen her since the tree hit the den. She's my baby," Ms. O'Brien said, her face wet with tears.
In Apalachicola, Sally Crown rode out the storm in her house.
The worst damage - she thought - was in her yard. Multiple trees were down. But after the storm passed, she drove to check on the café she manages and saw the scope of the destruction.
"It's absolutely horrendous.
Catastrophic," Ms. Crown said.
"There's flooding. Boats on the highway. A house on the highway.
Houses that have been there forever are just shattered."
Governor Rick Scott announced soon after the powerful eye had swept inland that "aggressive" search-and-rescue efforts were just beginning, and urged people to stay off debrislittered roads.
"If you and your family made it through the storm safely, the worst thing you could do now is act foolishly," he said.
With the hurricane still pounding the state hours after it came ashore and conditions too dangerous in places for search-andrescue teams to go out, there were no further reports of deaths or injuries by nightfall.
Michael was a meteorological brute that 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 was the most powerful hurricane on record to hit the Panhandle.
More than 375,000 people up and down the Gulf Coast were urged to evacuate as Michael closed in. But the fast-moving, fast-strengthening storm didn't give people much time to prepare, and emergency authorities lamented that many ignored the warnings and seemed to think they could ride it out.
Diane Farris, 57, and her son walked to a high school-turnedshelter near their home in Panama City to find about 1,100 people crammed into a space meant for about half as many. Neither she nor her son had any way to communicate because their lone cellphone got wet and stopped working.
"I'm worried about my daughter and grandbaby. I don't know where they are. You know, that's hard," she said, choking back tears.
Hurricane-force winds extended up to 75 km from Michael's centre at the height of the storm.
Forecasters said rainfall could reach up to 30 centimetres in spots. And then there was the lifethreatening storm surge to deal with.
A water-level station in Apalachicola, close to where Michael came ashore, reported a surge of nearly 2.5 metres.
Based on its internal barometric pressure, Michael was the third-most powerful hurricane to hit the U.S. mainland, behind the unnamed Labour Day storm of 1935 and Camille in 1969. Based on wind speed, it was the fourthstrongest, behind the Labour Day storm (296 km/h), Camille and Andrew in 1992.
It appeared to be so powerful that it remained a hurricane as it moved into southern Georgia early on Thursday. Forecasters said it would unleash damaging wind and rain all the way into the Carolinas, which are still recovering from Hurricane Florence's epic flooding.
At the White House, U.S. President Donald Trump said, "God bless everyone because it's going to be a rough one," he said. "A very dangerous one." His office said he would tour the devastated areas next week.
In Mexico Beach, population 1,000, the storm shattered homes, leaving floating piles of lumber. The lead-grey water was so high that roofs were about all that could be seen of many homes.
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?" evacuee Rachel Franklin said, her mouth hanging open.
Meteorologists watched satellite imagery in complete awe as the storm intensified.
"We are in new territory," U.S.
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 climate change.
Scientists say climate change 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.
With election day less than a month away, the crisis was seen as a test of leadership for Mr.
Scott, a Republican running for the U.S. Senate, and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, the Democratic nominee for state governor.
Just as northern politicians are judged on how they handle snowstorms, their southern counterparts are watched closely for how they deal with hurricanes.
A woman and her children wait near a destroyed gas station after Hurricane Michael swept through Panama City, Fla., on Wednesday. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/ AFP/GETTY IMAGES
Boats lay sunk and damaged at a marina in Port St. Joe, Fla., on Wednesday. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD/TAMPA BAY TIMES VIA AP
Above: Dorian Carter looks under furniture for a missing cat after several trees fell on his home in Panama City, Fla., Wednesday. GERALD HERBERT/ASSOCIATED PRESS Left: Mike Lindsey looks out from his antique shop after winds from Hurricane Michael tore through the city. JOE RAEDLE/GETTY IMAGES
People look at a damaged store in Panama City, Fla. Hurricane Michael made landfall on Wednesday as a Category 4 storm - the most powerful storm to hit the Florida Panhandle. MARK WALLHEISER/GETTY IMAGES