As the storm made landfall on the coast of the Florida Panhandle, those left near ground zero were in for a terrible beating.
PANAMA CITY, Fla. — Hurricane Michael arrived in the afternoon, its wind shoving — and shoving again — like an incessant bully. Behind a hotel window, the shoves came with a whoosh of bass and ominous squeaking from the places where the glass bowed, aching against the jambs.
It was not what people are used to in Panama City, a place that has not seen a storm this ugly in a long time. Nestled under Alabama on the Florida Panhandle, the area is built on the promise of making vacationers happy on a budget. The sands of Panama City Beach are the color of polished bone, its wide boulevards a riot of tacky and welcoming crab shacks, surf shops and putt-putts. The country singer Lee Brice, in a droll poetic reversal, once compared Panama City’s sunsets to the airbrushed T-shirts for sale there.
But Wednesday, it was all danger and worry, the shuddering of glass and seeking of shelter. The winds approached 155 miles per hour, tripping useless car alarms and felling trees.
Carlos Thomas, a pastor, went out in his old Dodge pickup just before the storm reached its awful crescendo, driving two elderly members of his church — the Neals Temple First Born Church of the Living God — to a neighborhood shelter.
[ Live updates on Hurricane Michael’s assault on Florida]
His family had gone to a shelter, too, but he stayed holed up for the worst of it in his little brick house where the welcome mat reads “I am blessed going out” to those leaving, and “I am blessed coming in” to those arriving.
“I believe from what I’ve seen in the past, we’re going to be O. K.,” he said. “I’m thinking God’s going to take us through it.”
Peggy Spell chose to stay out of it. She spent Wednesday sheltering in a hotel lobby, pleased enough to be out of her trailer home a few miles inland. Her husband, Eddie, was with her, as was her teenage son, Jacob. Eddie lay on the floor in a pair of waders, stroking the neck of their small dog, Cocoa. Jacob hoped the power would stay on so he could hook up his Xbox. No such luck.
Ms. Spell worried about her other son, a 34-year-old who decided to stay in the trailer near his chain saw and pickup truck, ready to cut people out or drag them to safety in the aftermath.
She admired him, but she was cursing him for it, too. “I’m totally ticked that we didn’t all leave,” she said. “Yeah. I’m worried.”
Out on the beach in the adjacent town of Panama City Beach, with its high-rise beach towers and pastel rental homes, there was a sense of anticipation and dread as the storm approached. In the morning, hours before landfall, the streets were nearly empty, and increasingly violent waves mangled each other on the shore.
Further east, in the inland city of Tallahassee, the storm didn’t arrive till a bit later: Locals lined up in the cafeteria at Lincoln High School in the late morning, carrying grocery bags filled with snacks, bedding and the occasional pet.
Already, the room was busy with people trying to make the best of the storm that had driven them out of their homes in fear.
“I seen what Florence done, and I don’t want to take any chances,” said Evelyn Rainey, 69, who was charging her cellphone in the spot she had picked out the night before for her chair and blankets. “My husband stayed home because he always wants to protect the house, I guess from looters and stuff. I’m like, we can get more stuff. This is a Category 4.”
Based on interviews Tuesday, a number of people had chosen to ride out the storm in Panama City Beach, which fronts the Gulf of Mexico. Shortly after sunrise, as the storm appeared to be gaining strength, it became clear how risky a plan that was. At around 8:15 a.m., Bay County’s emergency management department said on Twitter that fire and ambulance crews were unable to respond to calls; the exception was the Panama City Fire Department, which it said was responding only to “life-threatening emergencies within city limits.”
Soon thereafter, a couple in a Chevrolet Cruze sedan could be seen zipping through the pounding rain, up onto the Hathaway Bridge and away from Panama City Beach.
The car had Georgia plates, but the couple appeared to be local: A tall mound of clean clothes were piled in the back seat, as though they had been hastily pulled from a closet.
They were nearly alone on the high bridge, the revving wind all around them, white-capped waves crinkling the bay below.