Pan­han­dle takes a punch

Hur­ri­cane Michael bat­ters Florida with 155-mph winds

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - - Front page -

PANAMA CITY, Fla. — Hur­ri­cane Michael 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. It was the most pow­er­ful hur­ri­cane to hit the con­ti­nen­tal U.S. in nearly 50 years and at least one death was re­ported dur­ing its pas­sage.

Su­per­charged by ab­nor­mally warm wa­ters of 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 200mile stretch of white-sand beach re­sorts, fish­ing towns and mil­i­tary bases. Af­ter it rav­aged the Pan­han­dle, Michael bar­reled into south Ge­or­gia as a Cat­e­gory 3 hur­ri­cane — the most pow­er­ful ever recorded for that part of the neigh­bor­ing state. It later weak­ened to a Cat­e­gory 1 hur­ri­cane, and there were re­ports it spawned pos­si­ble tor­na­does in cen­tral Ge­or­gia.

In north Florida, Michael bat­tered the shore­line with side­ways rain, pow­er­ful gusts and crash­ing waves, swamp­ing streets and docks, flat­ten­ing trees, shred­ding awnings and peel­ing away shin­gles. It set off trans­former ex­plo­sions and knocked out power to more than 388,000 homes and busi­nesses.

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 man wasn’t im­me­di­ately iden­ti­fied.

Dam­age in Panama City 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, though 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 wood frame 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 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 1year-old Si­amese cat, Molly, was miss­ing.

“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 cafe she man­ages and saw breath­tak­ing 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.”

Gov. Rick Scott an­nounced soon af­ter the pow­er­ful eye had swept in­land that “ag­gres­sive” searc­hand-res­cue ef­forts would get un­der­way as con­di­tions al­lowed. He urged peo­ple to stay off de­bris-lit­tered roads.

“If you and your fam­ily made it through the storm safely, the worst thing you could do now is act fool­ishly,” he said.

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 Panama City home, where 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 quit 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.

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. The ho­tel swim­ming pool had white­caps.

Hur­ri­cane-force winds ex­tended up to 45 miles from Michael’s cen­ter at the height of the storm. Fore­cast­ers said rain­fall could reach up to a foot in spots. And then there was the life-threat­en­ing storm surge.

A wa­ter-level sta­tion in Apalachicola, close to where Michael came ashore, re­ported a surge of nearly 8 feet.

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), Camille and An­drew in 1992.

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, 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-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.”

Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

A storm chaser climbs into his ve­hi­cle to re­trieve equip­ment af­ter a ho­tel canopy col­lapsed Wed­nes­day in Panama City Beach, Fla.

Mark Wall­heiser/Getty Images

Peo­ple ob­serve a dam­aged store Wed­nes­day af­ter Hur­ri­cane Michael passed through Panama City, Fla. It was the most pow­er­ful storm ever to hit the Florida Pan­han­dle.

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