Ferocious Hurricane Michael roared ashore east of Panama City with pounding 155 mph winds and a devastating storm surge that flooded beachside towns, shredded roofs, left a half-million people powerless in three states and killed at least one person.
With the storm still raging across Georgia late Wednesday night and bound for the Carolinas, that toll of damage and death was expected to grow.
Michael, arriving at just a 2 mph tick below Category 5, was the strongest hurricane ever to hit the Florida Panhandle. It made landfall at 1 p.m. Central Daylight Time, five miles northwest of Mexico Beach, a quiet beach town with a population of about 1,200.
By Wednesday evening, there was one confirmed death in Gadsden County, where officials said a person was killed by a falling tree.
More than 388,000 homes and businesses across the Panhandle and Big Bend regions were left without power Wednesday evening. Outages affected an estimated 100,000 more properties in Alabama and Georgia.
Jerry Nelson, born and raised outside Panama City, was stunned at the destruction. The winds lifted up the rectangular porch roof, then slammed it down to the floor.
“I’ve never been through one this bad,” he said. “It sounded like 40 jet engines going off.”
As Michael churned inland, National Hurricane Center forecasters warned the back half of the hurricane would continue to spread dangerous storm surge and winds.
Michael, with maximum sustained winds of 75 mph at 11 p.m., turned into a Cat 1 hurricane as it plowed through southwest Georgia Wednesday night. Gov. Rick Scott warned that Floridians were not yet in the clear from the hurricane’s inclement weather.
The storm ravaged swaths of communities along the coastline, leveling homes in Mexico Beach and inflicting substantial damage to installations like Tyndall Air Force Base. Michael also knocked roofs off buildings along its destructive path through Northwest Florida, including some correctional facilities that were being assessed for structural damage.
The governor said the state had heard reports of two “devastating” tornadoes in Gadsden County and that they could still be possible elsewhere. He also warned Floridians to stay off the roads to make way for first responders and be cautious using generators as crews fanned out to assess the damage.
“If it’s not safe to leave your homes, don’t leave them,” Scott said. “Listen to your local officials.”
Scott said search and rescue teams were being deployed south toward Bay County and other affected areas along the coast.
Barely an hour after the storm crashed ashore, the streets in the old historic district of Panama City resembled a war zone littered with debris and tree branches. Roofs were ripped off. The golden arches of a McDonald’s toppled onto a flooded street.
At the First Presbyterian Church, the roof was peeled back. The brick facade of an adjacent education center, the site of Panama City’s first high school in the 1900s, had fallen.
Along Harrison Avenue, the main business strip, winds shattered windows at Harris Business Machines, leaving the rain to soak copy machines inside. A ripped awning hung by a thin strip on one storefront. Decorative city trash cans rolled along like metal tumbleweeds.
During the height of the storm, Mike Lindsey and his wife tried to plug leaks in their business, Elegant Endeavors Antique Shop, after the building owner refused to board over the windows.
“My wife and I were standing back always because we could see them wobbling back and forth. We knew they were going to go,” Lindsey said.
When the windows finally exploded, glass sprayed onto the street and atop an antique chair, an oil painting and a skeleton pirate Halloween decoration.
“It was very dramatic. Very intense,” Lindsey said.
Winds also knocked out local radio and TV stations. The local ABC affiliate in downtown Panama City lost part of its roof and suffered heavy flooding. Its generator was also damaged. It’s unclear whether the station’s antenna, located about 20 miles away, survived, station manager Terry Cole said.
“There is no one on the air, radio or television,” Cole said. “I have things that hit our building and took chunks out of the building. We’ve got roofs from other buildings on ours, at least three of them.”
Jerry Nelson, who lives in Springfield, a small suburb east of Panama City, discovered the storm tore off the wall of a trailer home used as storage. The innards spilled out: The 79-year-old lost a collection of antiques and knickknacks he’d assembled over decades, everything from old lamps to samurai swords to fishing rods.
“We have to save this stuff,” said his daughter, Haley Nelson, 27, as she picked through the photo frames. “This is like our 401(k), when dad is not here.”
Hurricane Michael’s track also inched slightly farther west than initially forecast Wednesday, bringing the eyewall close to the state’s largest mental health facility in Chattahoochee, which was not evacuated before the storm, state officials said.
Department of Children and Families spokesman David Frady said Florida State Hospital had backup power and water systems that were activated before landfall. The hospital has, as recently as 2013, held just under 1,000 residents, though Frady said he did not have the exact number Wednesday. Staff were “staying at the facility and are well stocked with emergency supplies,” he said.
Gov. Scott announced just before 4 p.m. that he had asked President Donald Trump to declare a major disaster in Florida to speed up aid from the federal government. The request calls for full federal funding for debris removal and emergency protective measures, as well as assistance for 14 counties. Florida Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson also sent a letter to Trump requesting disaster aid. Scott said the state has already spent nearly $40 million on responding to Michael.
As the storm straddled Interstate 10, the major east-west highway across the Panhandle Wednesday, winds and rain in Tallahassee began to worsen steadily.
The local National Weather Service station lost communications with its radar around 1:30 p.m. Trees began toppling. As of 4:30 p.m., more than 52,000 of the city’s 120,000 customers were without power, according to the municipal electric utility, and 35,000 without Talquin Electric power in the rest of the county. During Hurricane Hermine in 2016, about 80 percent of the city lost power, an issue that Scott and Mayor Andrew Gillum, who is running for governor, have repeatedly sparred over.
The two spoke shortly before 3 p.m. to discuss storm updates, the mayor tweeted. Scott also spoke with the city’s utilities director, Duke Energy’s state president in Florida and Leon County Sheriff Walt McNeil.
As the storm rolled inland, gauges on the Apalachicola River recorded water seven to eight feet higher than normal miles up river, National Hurricane Center Director Ken Graham said. Damaging tropical storm-force winds also extended about 175 miles from the storm’s center, he said.
“When you have a system that comes onshore at 155 mph, it’s going to stay a hurricane for a while,” he said.
Michael’s surge in strength came suddenly. On Tuesday, forecasters had not expected sustained winds to exceed 130 mph, although they warned that the storm might strengthen. But overnight as it churned toward the coast over very warm Gulf waters, Michael encountered little wind shear and rapidly intensified, growing by 15 mph in just eight hours.
In the old paper mill town of Port St. Joe, wind gusts were recorded at 106 mph before Michael’s landfall. Bay, Gulf and Franklin counties were under extreme wind warnings after National Weather Service meteorologists warned gusts could top 130 mph. A wind gauge at the Tyndall Air Force Base recorded a 130 mph gust before it failed, the National Hurricane Center said. The base, just north of where Michael made landfall, moved its F-22 Raptors, stealth fighter aircraft, to Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio earlier in the week.
Despite urgent evacuation orders that began Monday, many residents hunkered down for the sudden hurricane, which formed just two days ago in the southern Gulf of Mexico.
Scott Bazar, 45, also took refuge in a church parking garage after a last-minute decision to flee his house and the towering trees in his yard that he worried would topple. Franklin, his rat terrier, and a cat named Bread Pudding also made the two-block drive from his house.
“This looks like obliteration. It’s pure power,” he said as he watched the winds topple a large ficus tree onto a church playground below.
Earlier in the morning, last-minute gawkers stood on the beach near what’s usually a busy tourist hub lined with miniature golf courses, oyster bars and condos.
“I was going to stay here until it got to a Category 4,” said Randy Simmons, 57, who came to check on his beachfront condo before heading to another inland property he owns. “This is going to be a big mess.”
McClatchy correspondent Carol Rosenberg and Miami Herald staff writer Samantha Gross contributed to this report.