(TNS) - The Florida Panhandle woke up to harrowing scenes of destruction Thursday in the wake of monster Hurricane Michael, the worst storm on record to ever hit the area and the fourth most powerful to strike U.S. shores.
After carving an agonizing path of destruction across the Florida Panhandle, Georgia and southeastern Alabama for nearly 10 hours and killing at least two people, the fierce storm finally slowed from top sustained winds of 155 mph to a tropical storm at midnight and continued to weaken early Thursday.
By 8 a.m.,winds had slowed to 50 mph as Michael crossed South Carolina, about 40 miles west of Columbia, The storm had picked up speed to a fast 21 mph and should continue weakening. But it could regain some strength when it emerges over the Atlantic and becomes a post-tropical storm, National Hurricane Center forecasters said.
Michael plowed inland with powerful winds and storm surge after crashing ashore in Mexico Beach, a quaint low-slung beach town with a population of just 1,200 in one of the most remote corners of Florida. Waters crested rooftops and washed out roads. Parts of U.S. Highway 98, the main east-west road connecting the Panhandle, were impassable.
The smell of natural gas permeated the predawn air amid piles of debris and destroyed homes near ground zero.
A landscape that once drew vacationers to secluded beaches was littered with refrigerators, toilets and staircases no longer connected to houses. Cars and SUV’s were tossed from the highway. Houses were cracked open to reveal sodden furniture and wrecked belongings.
In Apalachicola about 35 miles to the southeast and just inside the perimeter for hurricane winds, a tidal gauge recorded water at 8.55 feet before 7 p.m. Wednesday. At a boat ramp in Spring Creek, water crested at 7.72 feet.
The toll of the damage was just beginning to be assessed at daybreak, with destruction widespread: buildings flattened, trees toppled and stripped and boats tossed ashore.
In Panama City, a train was blown off its tracks, a scene reminiscent of the 1935 Labor Day hurricane that struck the Keys. At a marina, boats were heaped in piles after a dry dock warehouse was shredded.
Michael was blamed for at least two deaths: a man in Gadsden County died when a tree fell and a girl in Seminole County, Georgia. At the Tyndall Air Force Base, about 15 miles northwest of Mexico Beach, the monster storm pushed over trucks and peeled back the roof of a massive airplane hangar. Fighter planes had been moved to Ohio earlier in the week.
About 57,000 homes and condos were at risk of damage, according to real estate analyst firm CoreLogic. At a morning briefing, state officials said 400,000 in Florida remained without power. The state had also deployed 495 rescuers in search teams and another 110 firefighters and medics.
Panama City looked like a war zone, with windows blasted out and streets littered with debris.
“I’ve never been through one this bad,” said Jerry Nelson, who was born and raised outside Panama City, where winds ripped away bricks from the facade of the historic high school and mangled building after building. “It sounded like 40 jet engines going off.”
Authorities are preparing to set up extra shelters and move people into more secure areas. They are posting information about recovery efforts, road and bridge openings and the status of evactuaion orders on FloridaDisaster.org.
For the first time, they also plan to use remote sensing and geotag photo technology to assess damage and update residents in real time, said Richard Butgereit, CIO for the Florida Division of Emergency Management.
On Cedar Key to the south, a tiny island particularly vulnerable to the fury of hurricanes, damage was thankfully far less than feared.
Dock Street, the arty fishing town’s main drag, was mostly spared, a stark contrast from the destruction from Hurricane Hermine in 2016, that slammed the island with a nine-foot storm surge. When the bridge to the island reopened about 6:30 p.m. Wednesday night, the relief was evident.
The town looked bruised, said Kathleen Troy, 57, as she and her husband walked their dog through dark streets, but not beaten.
“The community’s pretty resilient,” said Gregg Troy, 67.
Staff reporter Samantha Gross and Tampa Bay Times reporter Josh Solomon contributed to this report.
Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich
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