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Supercharged overnight, Hurricane Michael menaces Florida

A storm chaser climbs into his vehicle during the eye of Hurricane Michael to retrieve equipment after a hotel canopy collapsed in Panama City Beach, Fla., Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
GERALD HERBERT/ASSOCIATED PRESS
A man attempted to get into his car to retrieve items after a canopy collapsed in Panama City, Fla.

PANAMA CITY, Fla. — Hurricane Michael, one of the most powerful storms ever to hit the continental United States, slammed into the Florida Panhandle on Wednesday, unleashing a trail of destruction across 200 miles that splintered houses, peeled off roofs, and stirred up a terrifying surge of seawater that submerged entire neighborhoods and sent boats careening down city streets.

A storm that was initially forecast to arrive as a tropical storm instead amped up to furious intensity, hitting landfall just after midday near the small seaside community of Mexico Beach, 100 miles southwest of Tallahassee, with winds topping 155 miles per hour.

Images from there showed swaths of shattered debris where houses once stood and structures inundated up to their rooftops; the streets of Panama City, farther west, were blocked by downed tree limbs and impossible tangles of power lines. Recreational vehicles, trucks, and even trains were pushed over, surrounded by new lakes of water.

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“Hurricane Michael is the worst storm that the Florida Panhandle has ever seen,” said Governor Rick Scott of Florida, where 375,000 people were evacuated from the western part of the state.

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The storm was officially classified as a Category 4 — on the verge of Category 5 — but was later downgraded as it continued its rapid advance up toward Georgia and the Carolinas, where cities still reeling from Hurricane Florence prepared for another onslaught of rain and wind.

Just about every update seemed to bring greater grimness: closed bridges, more towering waves, suspended emergency services, admonitions that the time to evacuate had passed. The National Hurricane Center reported a 130-mile-per-hour gust near the evacuated Tyndall Air Force Base — and said that the measuring instrument had then failed.

A man died in Greensboro, northwest of Tallahassee, after a tree crashed down on his home late Wednesday afternoon, local law enforcement officials confirmed.

But the full extent of the damage and other casualties was uncertain. Residents and emergency workers spent most of the day hunkered down, and emerged only toward nightfall to begin assessing the storm’s toll. As dusk approached, though, the early outlines of a vast calamity were unfolding.

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“You can’t drive a car anywhere, you can’t do anything because it’s littered with houses, pieces of houses,” said Patricia Mulligan, who rode out the storm with her family in a condo in Mexico Beach, a town of mom-and-pop shops and sportfishing businesses about 35 miles southeast of Panama City. Outside, she said in a phone interview, she could see remnants of people’s lives strewn about: refrigerators, a beanbag chair, a washing machine, a kayak, and a dresser.

Her brother, she said, lost a condo along the beach, and the other nearby units were also destroyed. “They’re not there,” she said. “It’s gone.”

The ominous, unmistakable rhythm of a hurricane’s rains — drizzle, followed by unhinged gushing, and then drizzle again — unnerved the coast on Wednesday morning hours before the fullest ravages began. And then the force of the hurricane tore through, cracking walls, toppling heavy metal fences, and flattening cars with lampposts while people, unable or unwilling to evacuate, huddled in closets and stairwells.

The storm made landfall near Mexico Beach just before 1 p.m. with a storm surge that was recorded at 8 feet in one place along the Panhandle coast. A video shot there by Tessa Talarico, Mulligan’s daughter, showed a neighborhood submerged up to its rooftops, the debris of what once were homes and other structures drifting on the seawater’s swells.

A stronger hurricane had not hit the Panhandle in 167 years of record-keeping.

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But the perils were farther reaching, with emergency declarations in effect for 322 counties across five Southern states. Warnings and watches were issued for as far west as Alabama’s border with Mississippi, and for the coasts of Georgia and the Carolinas.

The storm is not expected to move offshore until Friday, having swept over much of Georgia as a hurricane and then North and South Carolina as a tropical storm.

Florida’s government said nearly 6,700 people were in 54 shelters and that close to 30,000 customers lost electricity before the storm’s landfall. A series of transformer explosions and other mishaps knocked out power to 388,000 homes and businesses, the governor’s office reported.

“Unfortunately, this is a Gulf Coast hurricane of the worst kind because all of the elements associated with hurricanes come into play,” Brock Long, the chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Wednesday after he briefed President Trump in the Oval Office.

Trump, who is expected to visit the region as early as Sunday, said he would be “totally focused” on the storm but would not cancel a Wednesday night campaign rally in Pennsylvania.

“All of America sends its unwavering love and support,” he said at the rally. “We will spare no effort, no expense, no resource to help these great fellow citizens of ours who are going through a tough time right now.”

Clearly, the worst of the devastation is likely to be in the Panhandle, a region known more for its beaches, seaside towns, and oyster harvests than as a target of a tropical cyclone.

The storm came with tragic speed and unanticipated power after surfacing in the Western Caribbean as “potential tropical cyclone 14” on Saturday, 55 days before the end of the Atlantic hurricane season. Forecasters immediately predicted that the system would strike the Panhandle, probably on Wednesday afternoon as a tropical storm.

But as the cyclone approached and met the Gulf of Mexico, it grew more harrowing.

On Monday morning, the storm had winds of 70 miles per hour, under the threshold of a hurricane. On Tuesday morning, wind speeds reached 110, and at nightfall, forecasters believed they would go no higher than 129.

But the storm intensified far more than unexpected overnight, and by sunrise on Wednesday, the winds had reached 140 miles per hour. Later they were even higher, reaching 155 — just 2 miles per hour short of Category 5 strength — by landfall.

The storm was the first major hurricane — a storm with winds of at least 111 miles per hour — to make landfall in the continental United States since Hurricane Irma last year.

The storm’s rapid intensification gave emergency officials and residents little time to prepare.

“When they started a couple of days ago and said it was going to be a Category 1, it was, like, ‘Cat 1, no big deal,’ ” Laurie Hamm said at the Panama City hotel where she had taken refuge. “When they said Cat 2, it was like, ‘Oh, maybe we’d better pay attention.’ And when they said Cat 3, it was like, ‘Oh, Lord.’ ”