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story.lead_photo.caption A woman walks through floodwater and storm debris near a damaged apartment building Wednesday in Panama City, Fla., after Hurricane Michael slammed the Gulf Coast.

PANAMA CITY, Fla. -- Hurricane Michael slammed Wednesday into the Florida panhandle with winds of 155 mph, splintering homes and submerging neighborhoods before continuing its destructive march 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 in the Gulf of Mexico, the Category 4 storm made landfall just before 1 p.m. near Mexico Beach, a tourist town about midway along the panhandle. After it moved through the panhandle, Michael entered south Georgia as a Category 3 hurricane -- the most powerful in recorded history for that part of the state. It later weakened to a Category 1, and there were reports that it spawned tornadoes in central Georgia.

Gallery: Hurricane Michael

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 also 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 onto a home, Gadsden County sheriff's office spokesman Anglie Hightower said. She said authorities got a call Wednesday evening that the man was trapped, but rescue crews were hampered in reaching him because of downed trees and debris blocking roadways.

Damage in Panama City was extensive, with broken and uprooted trees and power lines down nearly everywhere. Roofs were peeled off and homes were split open by fallen trees. Residents emerged from their shelters in the early evening to assess damage when the rain stopped, though it was still windy and skies were still overcast.

Vance Beu, 29, was staying with his mother at 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 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," Beu said.

Kaylee O'Brien was crying as she searched 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. She was missing her 1-year-old Siamese cat, Molly.

"We haven't seen her since the tree hit the den. She's my baby," O'Brien said.

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 the scope of the destruction.

"It's absolutely horrendous. Catastrophic," Crown said. "There's flooding. Boats on the highway. A house on the highway. Houses that have been there forever are just shattered."

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.

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.

The wind whipped up whitecaps in the hotel swimming pool.

"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."

Only a skeleton staff remained at Tyndall Air Force Base, situated on a peninsula just south of Panama City. Hundreds of military families were moved out, and the base's aircraft, which include F-22 Raptors, were flown to safety hundreds of miles away. The National Hurricane Center reported a 130 mph wind gust near the evacuated base and said that the measuring instrument had then failed.

Gov. Rick Scott announced soon after the powerful eye had swept inland that "aggressive" search-and-rescue efforts were just beginning and 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.

With the hurricane still pounding the state hours after it moved ashore and conditions too dangerous in places for search-and-rescue teams to go out, there were no further reports of deaths or injuries by nightfall.

METEOROLOGICAL BRUTE

Michael was a meteorological brute that sprang quickly from a weekend tropical depression, strengthening from a Category 2 on Tuesday to a Category 4 by the time it rolled ashore Wednesday. 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.

The American Red Cross said about 4,000 people slept in shelters Tuesday.

Diane Farris, 57, and her son walked to a high school-turned-shelter near their home in Panama City to find about 1,100 people crammed into a space meant for about half that 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.

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 to deal with.

A water-level station in Apalachicola, close to where Michael churned 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, Camille and Andrew in 1992.

Five states have declared states of emergency because of Hurricane Michael: Florida, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina.

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster noted in his order that his state is still dealing with floodwaters left behind by Hurricane Florence, which tore through the Carolinas last month. McMaster said that given the lingering floodwaters, Michael poses "a significant threat" to South Carolina.

Federal officials said they are in position and prepared to help the Southeast respond to Hurricane Michael, which they described as a particularly dangerous system.

"Unfortunately, Hurricane Michael is a hurricane of the worst kind," Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long said as he briefed President Donald Trump on Wednesday morning.

"Major hurricanes cause large losses of life and the most amount of destruction that hurricanes can bring forward," he said.

Long extended his warning to other parts of the Southeast, saying this could be the worst storm to hit southwest and central Georgia in "many, many decades -- and maybe ever.

"The citizens in Georgia need to wake up and pay attention," he said. Beyond that, Long said, the storm could deliver unwelcome rainfall to parts of the Carolinas still recovering from Florence's deadly flooding.

At a campaign event Wednesday in Pennsylvania, Trump offered his "thoughts and prayers" to those in the storm's path and promised to "spare no effort" in the response.

He added: "We will always pull through. ... We will always be successful at what we do."

His office said he would tour the devastated areas next week.

Information for this article was contributed by Jay Reeves, Brendan Farrington, Tamara Lush, Terry Spencer, Freida Frisaro, Russ Bynum, Jonathan Drew, Catherine Lucey and Seth Borenstein of The Associated Press; by Richard Fausset, Patricia Mazzei and Alan Blinder of The New York Times; and by Luz Lazo, Mark Berman, Patricia Sullivan, Carmen Sisson and Kevin Begos of The Washington Post.

A Section on 10/11/2018

Print Headline: Michael thrashes Florida

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