FLORIDA REELING FROM MASSIVE STORM
Michael arrives as one of strongest hurricanes ever to hit the U.S.
PANAMA CITY, Fla. — Hurricane Michael slammed into the Florida Panhandle on Wednesday as one of the most powerful storms to hit the United States, flooding coastal communities and unleashing devastating winds that scoured cities dozens of miles inland.
Late in the day, authorities announced the launch of medical search-and-rescue missions and supply shipments across the region as officials sought to evaluate the extent of the devastation caused by the Category 4 storm, which struck with winds of 155 mph.
“We are deploying a massive wave of response — we will be sending help from air, land and sea,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott said in a televised news conference.
It was too soon to get a clear picture of the scale of the storm’s damage, which was expected to be extensive. Michael barreled inland toward Tallahassee and Georgia after making landfall near the small town of Mexico Beach about 1:30 p.m. Eastern time, the National Weather Service said.
A man was reported killed in Gadsden County,
Fla., after a tree collapsed on a home Wednesday evening, according to the Gadsden County Sheriff ’s Office.
At a two-story Quality Inn hotel in Panama City, some people who had evacuated their homes had initially gone on a balcony to snap photos and video of the storm. The powerful winds drove them inside, tossing tree limbs across the street and ripping off the hotel’s roadside sign.
The hotel walls shook. In Room 235, Jonathon Klepetzki, a 30-year-old meteorology research student from Jacksonville, said he heard a wall crack and then watched a chunk of drywall hit his flat-screen TV. Above, there were loud thuds as the wind ripped shingles off the roof and siding off the building.
After huddling in her room hoping the roof didn’t fall off, Roxanna Scott, 31, a finance worker from Panama City Beach, emerged to a balcony strewn with metal panels and insulation foam. Below, a pine tree had snapped and fallen on a white Ford F-150. “This is scary,” Scott said. In Port St. Joe, southeast of Mexico Beach, the wind snapped pine trees in half like matchsticks, sending some trunks tumbling onto power lines. In Walton County, to the west of Panama City Beach, a deputy shot a photo of a yacht that had been blown onto the shore, its sail shredded into strips of cloth, still clinging to the mast.
Emergency officials across the region, in fear for their own safety, temporarily stopped responding to 911 calls from residents who hadn’t evacuated. Some area newsrooms lost power, cutting off the flow of information from local journalists covering the storm.
For days, local residents and officials had braced for Hurricane Michael’s arrival as the storm drew strength from the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
In the final hours before coming ashore, the storm’s pressure continued to drop — a sign that Michael was getting stronger, not weaker, as it bore down on the Florida Panhandle, which had no record of facing a hurricane as powerful as Michael.
In Mexico Beach, visibility dropped to nearly zero as intense winds ripped off roofs and uprooted signs. Several feet of storm surge then consumed part of the city, flooding some homes up to their roofs.
The National Weather Service said the hurricane made landfall just 2 mph short of being classified as a Category 5 storm.
Local media reports said that one of the area’s barrier islands, Dog Island, which is accessible only by boat, was under water. On the mainland coast, powerful winds had begun ripping roofs from buildings and branches from trees as officials and residents huddled in shelters to ride out the worst of the hurricane.
The storm swept northnorthwest over the northeastern Gulf of Mexico early Wednesday, generating official warnings for residents to seek shelter.
Michael was forecast to lash coastal areas of Florida, Alabama and Georgia with as much as 12 inches of rain. Farther inland, damaging winds, torrential rain and life-threatening flash floods were forecast for parts of Georgia and Alabama.
Before dawn, residents along the Florida Gulf Coast had scrambled to shelters as the National Hurricane Center called Michael “potentially catastrophic” and warned of a life-threatening storm surge, powerful winds and torrential rain.
More than 2 million Florida residents were under mandatory or voluntary evacuation orders, and a hurricane warning was in effect from the Alabama state line to the mouth of the Suwannee River. A storm surge warning was also in effect from Florida’s Okaloosa-Walton county line to the Anclote River near Tampa.
The National Hurricane Center expected Michael to move inland and then weaken as it moved northeast across the southeastern United States on Wednesday night and Thursday.
As rain bore down in Panama City, a steady stream of evacuees filled Rutherford High School, hauling yapping dogs, crying babies, blankets, mattress pads, oxygen tanks, folding chairs, crates of water and grocery bags stuffed with Wonder bread and Doritos.
Patricia Barnes, a 76year-old retired bookkeeper, was a bit short of breath and her blood pressure was up when she arrived at the shelter. She had stayed up all night watching the TV news and comforting herself with the 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”
Initially, she and her husband had planned to ride Michael out at their home in Lynn Haven, a small coastal town seven miles north — until they heard it had strengthened to a Category 4. “It’s better to be safe,” she said.
Huddling in an outdoor breezeway while her sister put her Jack Russell terrier, Skooter, in a hallway reserved for pets, Barnes approached a volunteer: “You got a room for me?”
Shaking his head, the volunteer told her he only had space in open hallways. He scooped up her blankets and pillows and ushered her to a narrow hall lined with gray metal lockers.
Evacuees seemed to occupy every inch of the sprawling brick high school, spreading blankets and mattresses in classrooms, hallways and the cafeteria. Some rested their heads on wooden desks or curled up in sleeping bags on linoleum floors, while others passed the time playing cards, reading paperbacks or monitoring the hurricane on their cellphones.
In her rush to find a cab in the middle of the night to get her to the shelter, Tamika Rowe, 27, a criminology student who moved to the area a few months ago from Jamaica, had grabbed important documents like her birth certificate and passport. She had not thought to bring blankets or pillows.
“It’s not going to be easy sleeping,” she said ruefully after she had picked a narrow space on a linoleum floor in a hallway.
More than 50 shelters were open across Florida. In Bay County, emergency officials urged residents to stay off the roads and warned those who still remained in their homes to stay inside and seek shelter in an interior room with few windows.
According to meteorologists, no Category 4 or 5 hurricane had made landfall in the Florida Panhandle since record-keeping began in 1851.
The last major hurricane to strike this part of Florida was Dennis, which made landfall as a Category 3 storm on Santa Rosa Island, about 40 miles east of Pensacola, in 2005. Since 1950, only two other major hurricanes have made landfall in the region: Eloise in 1975 and Opal in 1995.
In 2016, Hurricane Hermine reached land as a Category 1 storm, leaving hundreds of thousands of residents without electricity, including more than 80% of those in the state capital, Tallahassee.
“We are with you Florida!” tweeted President Trump as the storm neared landfall. He is expected to visit the region next week.
IN PANAMA CITY, Fla., Haley Nelson stands amid the ruins of her family properties after Hurricane Michael made landfall nearby with 155-mph winds, almost strong enough to be a Category 5 storm.
A HOTEL worker in Panama City Beach, Fla., holds a door closed as it is shattered by f lying debris. Search-and-rescue missions were launched across the area.