Hurricane Michael made landfall on Florida’s Panhandle as a “monstrous” Category-4 storm on Wednesday, bringing with it life-threatening winds, catastrophic storm surges and heavy rain.
The National Hurricane Center (NHC) said the hurricane was intensifying as it pounded the coast just northwest of Mexico Beach, Florida.
With maximum sustained winds of 250km/h, it is one of the most intense hurricanes to ever hit the US mainland, and the most powerful one on record to menace the Panhandle, a roughly 200-mile stretch of fishing towns, military bases and holiday beaches.
Michael battered the coastline with sideways-blown rain and crashing waves, swamped streets, bent trees, stripped away leaves and limbs and sent building debris flying.
Explosions apparently caused by transformers could be heard. Michael’s menace was compounded by its relatively quick development, growing from a tropical storm to Category-4 hurricane in about 40 hours.
Rainfall could reach up to a 30cm, and the life-threatening storm surge could swell to four metres. The storm appeared to be so powerful it is expected to remain a hurricane as it moves over Georgia early Thursday.
“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.”
Too late to evacuate
More than 2.1 million residents of at least 20 Florida counties were under mandatory or voluntary evacuation orders.
Earlier on Wednesday, Florida Governor Rick Scott said on Twitter that it was too late to evacuate the target zone and that people who had stayed should immediately seek refuge.
|The storm surge and waves from Hurricane Michael batter the beach in the Florida Panhandle community of Shell Point Beach, Florida [Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images/AFP]
President Donald Trump declared a state of emergency for the entire state of Florida, freeing up federal assistance to supplement state and local disaster responses.
NHC Director Ken Graham said Michael represented a “textbook case” of a hurricane system growing stronger as it drew near shore, in contrast to Hurricane Florence, which struck North Carolina last month after weakening in a slow, halting approach.
He said the storm would still have hurricane-force winds as it pushed through Florida into Georgia and tropical storm-force winds when it reaches North and South Carolinas, which are still reeling from post-Florence flooding.
The region should brace for “major infrastructure damage”, specifically to electricity distribution, wastewater treatment systems and transportation networks, Jeff Byard, associate administrator for FEMA, told reporters on a conference call.
About 43,000 homes and businesses customers were already without power around midday.
Some of the storm’s most significant early impact was to offshore energy production. US producers in the Gulf cut oil production by about 40 percent and natural gas output by 28 percent on Tuesday, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement said.
Residents fear they’ll lose everything
Many state offices, schools and universities in the area have been closed since Tuesday.
Among those who fled their homes was Betty Early, 75, a retiree who joined about 300 fellow evacuees huddled on makeshift bed rolls of blankets and collapsed cardboard boxes at an elementary school serving as an American Red Cross shelter in Panama City, near the storm’s expected landfall.
She was unsure how well her old, wood-framed apartment block would hold up. “I’m blessed to have a place to come,” she told Reuters news agency.
“My greatest concern is not having electricity, and living on a fixed income, losing my food.”
In the town of St Marks, John Hargan and his family gathered up their pets and moved to a raised building constructed to withstand a Category-5 after water from the St Marks River began surrounding their home.
Hargan’s 11-year-old son, Jayden, carried one of the family’s dogs in a laundry basket in one arm and held a skateboard in the other as he waded through calf-high water.
Hargan, a bartender at a riverfront restaurant, feared he would lose his home and his job to the storm.
“We basically just walked away from everything and said goodbye to it,” he told the Associated Press, tears welling up. “I’m freakin’ scared I’m going to lose everything I own.”
|People wait for breakfast as they and others seek safety in a shelter as Hurricane Michael approaches Panama City, Florida [Brendan Smialowski/AFP]
About 2,500 National Guard troops were deployed to assist with evacuations and storm preparations, and more than 4,000 others were on standby. Some 17,000 utility restoration workers were also on call.
Meanwhile, neighbouring states were also making preparations
Georgia Governor Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency on Tuesday for 92 counties in his state.