PANAMA CITY — Hurricane Michael, the third-most powerful ever to strike the US mainland, weakened to a tropical storm early on Thursday but only after wreaking a day of havoc along Florida’s Gulf Coast as it flooded homes and streets and toppled trees and power lines in the beachfront areas where it roared ashore as a Category 4 hurricane.
Florida officials said Michael, packing winds of 250 km/ h, was the most powerful storm to hit the state’s northern Panhandle area since record-keeping began more than a century ago. One death was blamed on the hurricane.
Michael had weakened to a Category 1, with maximum winds of 140 km/h as of 8 pm Eastern time, but that still left it an extremely dangerous storm.
By midnight, it was downgraded further to a tropical storm as it barreled across central Georgia, still dumping torrential rain and packing fierce 110 km/h winds.
In Florida, pictures and video from Mexico Beach — a community of about 1,000 people where Michael made landfall around midday on Wednesday — showed scenes of devastation, with houses floating in flooded streets, some ripped from their foundations and missing roofs.
Roads were filled with piles of floating debris.
After being battered for nearly three hours by strong winds and heavy rains, roads in Panama City were virtually impassable and trees, satellite dishes and traffic lights lay in the streets.
Briefing US President Donald Trump at the White House, Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Brock Long said Michael was also the most intense hurricane to strike the Florida Panhandle since record keeping began in 1851.
“Along our coast, communities are going to see unimaginable devastation,” Scott said, with storm surge posing the greatest danger.
“Water will come miles inshore and could easily rise over the roofs of houses.”
Long added: “Those who stick around to experience storm surge don’t typically live to tell about it.”
At a rally in Pennsylvania on Wednesday night, Trump offered his “thoughts and prayers” to those in the path of the storm and said he would be visiting Florida soon.
Hundreds of thousands of people were ordered to evacuate their homes and the governor told residents who had not done so to “hunker down and be careful”.
Ken Graham, director of the Miami-based National Hurricane Center, said Michael is “unfortunately, a historical and incredibly dangerous and life-threatening situation”.
As it came ashore, Michael was just shy of a Category 5 — defined as a storm packing top sustained wind speeds of 253 km/h or above.
An estimated 375,000 people in more than 20 counties were ordered or advised to evacuate.
Trump issued an emergency declaration for Florida, freeing up federal funds for relief operations and providing the assistance of FEMA, which has more than 3,000 people on the ground.
State officials issued disaster declarations in Alabama and Georgia and the storm is also expected to bring heavy rainfall to North and South Carolina.
Haley Nelson inspects damage to her property in Panama City, Florida, after Hurricane Michael made landfall on Wednesday. See story, page 14
People try to get some rest at Lincoln High School as Hurricane Michael approached on Wednesday in Tallahassee, Florida.