Hurricane weakened to a tropical storm as is tore through the state on its way to Georgia and the Carolinas
Tropical Storm Michael took its drenching rains to Georgia and the Carolinas on Thursday after battering Florida’s Panhandle as the third most powerful hurricane to ever strike the US mainland and killing at least two people.
Michael shattered houses and buildings, downed power lines and ripped up trees when it crashed ashore on Wednesday afternoon, carrying winds of up to 250km/h (155mph) and causing deep seawater flooding.
Florida residents and officials were taking stock of the damage on Thursday.
“I think everything from Panama City down to Mexico Beach is way worse than anybody ever anticipated,” Florida Governor Rick Scott told the Weather Channel. Michael’s eye came ashore near Mexico Beach, about 32km (20 miles) southeast of Panama City.
“This is going to be a long recovery but Florida is resilient, we help each other, and we survive,” Scott said. “We worked all night in endangered circumstances.”
Authorities said about 280 residents of Mexico Beach ignored evacuation orders as the storm approached. The area is known for its small beach towns, wildlife reserves and the state capital, Tallahassee.
Michael was a Category 4 storm, just shy of a rare Category 5, when it came ashore. It weakened steadily as it travelled inland.
By 8am on Thursday it had been downgraded to a tropical storm with 85km/h (50mph) winds as it pushed through Georgia into the Carolinas, the National Hurricane Centre (NHC) said.
Parts of North Carolina and Virginia could get as much as 23cm (nine inches) of rain and life-threatening flash floods, the NHC said. The Carolinas are still recovering from Hurricane Florence last month.
The two people killed in the storm were a man when a tree fell onto his house in Florida and a girl when debris fell into a home in Georgia, officials and local media said.
More than 830,000 homes and businesses were without power in Florida, Alabama and Georgia early on Thursday.
The hurricane, the fiercest to hit Florida in 80 years, pummeled communities across the Panhandle and turned streets into roof-high waterways.
“The wind that came through here was surreal. It destroyed everything,” Jason Gunderson, a member of a group of rescuers that calls itself the Cajun Navy, told CNN early on Thursday from Callaway, a suburb of Panama City. “It’s unlivable. It’s heartbreaking.”
Thousands of people hunkered down in shelters overnight after fleeing their homes before the storm.
An estimated 6,000 people fled to emergency shelters, mostly in Florida, and that number was expected to swell to 20,000 across five states by the weekend, said Brad Kieserman of the American Red Cross.
About 32km (20 miles) south of Mexico Beach, floodwaters were more than two metres (seven feet) deep near Apalachicola, a town of about 2,300 residents, hurricane centre chief Ken Graham said. Wind damage was also evident.
“There are so many downed power lines and trees that it’s almost impossible to get through the city,” Apalachicola Mayor Van Johnson said.
Michael ranked as the third strongest storm on record to make landfall in the continental United States. Only Hurricane Camille on the Mississippi Gulf coast in 1969 and the so-called Labour Day hurricane of 1935 in the Florida Keys were more intense.
Even before landfall, the hurricane disrupted energy operations in the gulf, cutting crude oil production by more than 40 per cent and natural gas output by nearly one-third as offshore platforms were evacuated before the storm hit.