(TNS) - After transforming from a major to a mighty storm in a matter of hours, a ferocious Hurricane Michael roared ashore east of Panama City on Wednesday with pounding 155 mph winds.
The storm, the first-ever powerful Category 4 hurricane to hit the Panhandle, made landfall at 1 p.m. Central Daylight Time, five miles northwest of Mexico Beach, a quiet beach town with a population of about 1,200. The wind speed fell just 2 mph short of a more dangerous Category 5.
As it churns inland, National Hurricane Center forecasters warn that the back half of the hurricane will continue to spread dangerous storm surge and winds. Flood waters could reach as high as 14 feet in some places.
Barely an hour after the storm crashed ashore, the streets in the old historic district of Panama City resembled a war zone littered with debris and tree branches. Roofs were ripped off. The golden arches of a McDonald’s toppled onto a flooded street.
At the First Presbyterian Church, the roof was peeled back. The brick facade of an adjacent education center, the site of Panama City’s first high school in the 1900s, had toppled.
Along Harrison Avenue, the main business strip, winds shattered windows at Harris Business Machines, leaving the rain to soak copy machines inside. A ripped awning hung by a thin strip one storefront. Decorative city trash cans rolled along like metal tumble weeds.
During the height of the storm, Mike Lindsey and his wife tried to plug leaks in their business, Elegant Endeavors Antique Shop, after the building owner refused to board over the windows.
“My wife and I were standing back aways because we could see them wobbling back and forth. We knew they were going to go,” Lindsey said.
When the windows finally exploded, glass sprayed onto the street and atop an antique chair, an oil painting and a skeleton pirate Halloween decoration.
“It was very dramatic. Very intense,” Lindsey said.
Winds also knocked out local radio and TV stations. The local ABC affiliate in downtown Panama City lost part of its roof and suffered heavy flooding. Its generator was also damaged. The station’s antenna was blown about 20 miles away, the station said.
“There is no one on the air, radio or television,” station manager Terry Cole said. “I have things that hit our building and took chunks out of the building. We’ve got roofs from other buildings on ours, at least three of them.”
Gov. Rick Scott announced Wednesday afternoon that he had asked President Donald Trump to declare a major disaster in Florida to speed up aid from the federal government. The request calls for full federal funding for debris removal and emergency protective measures, as well as assistance for counties. Scott said the state has already spent nearly $40 million responding to Michael.
As the storm straddled Interstate 10, the major east-west highway across the Panhandle on Wednesday afternoon, winds and rain in Tallahassee began to worsen steadily.
The local National Weather Service station lost communications with its radar around 1:30 p.m. Trees began toppling. As of 4:30 p.m., more than 52,000 of the city’s 120,000 customers were without power, according to the municipal electric utility, and 35,000 without Talquin power in the rest of the county. During Hurricane Hermine in 2016, about 80 percent of Tallahassee lost power, an issue that Scott and Mayor Andrew Gillum, who is running for governor, have repeatedly sparred over.
The two spoke shortly before 3 p.m. to discuss storm updates, the mayor tweeted. Scott also spoke with the city’s utilities director, Duke Energy’s state president in Florida and Leon County Sheriff Walt McNeil.
As the storm rolls inland and winds on its right side continue pushing water onshore, flooding may worsen along more remote parts of the coast near Apalachicola Bay. Gauges on the Apalachicola River had already recorded water 7 to 8 feet higher than normal miles up river, hurricane center director Ken Graham said. Damaging tropical storm-force winds also still extend about 175 miles from the storm’s center, he said.
“When you have a system that comes onshore at 155 mph, it’s going to stay a hurricane for a while,” he said.
Michael’s surge in strength came suddenly. Just 24 hours ago, forecasters had not expected sustained winds to exceed 130 mph, although they warned the storm might strengthen. But overnight as it churned toward the coast over very warm Gulf waters, Michael encountered little wind shear and rapidly intensified, growing by 15 mph in just eight hours.
The storm, downgraded to a Cat 3, is expected to continue crossing the Panhandle on Wednesday afternoon, and it will move quickly into southeastern Alabama and Georgia on Wednesday night. Its forward speed increased to 16 mph.
Throughout the morning as the storm neared, heavy wind and surging waters pounded the coast. Coastal roads flooded as waters rose.
In the old paper mill town of Port St. Joe, wind gusts were recorded at 106 mph. Bay, Gulf and Franklin counties were under extreme wind warnings after National Weather Service meteorologists warned gusts could top 130 mph. A wind gauge at the Tyndall recorded a 130 mph gust before it failed Wednesday, the National Hurricane Center said. The base, just north of where Michael made landfall, moved its F-22 Raptors stealth fighters moved to Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio earlier in the week.
Despite urgent evacuation orders that began Monday, many residents hunkered down for the sudden hurricane, which formed just two days ago in the southern Gulf of Mexico.
“This is probably the safest spot in town,” a retired airline pilot who would only give his first name, Brian, said as he took refuge in his shiny Mercedes-Benz in a concrete garage near downtown Panama City. He originally planned to ride out the storm in his 40-foot sailboat, until the marina kicked him out.
“A boat was probably not the best place to be,” he said.
His car was stuffed with supplies, an empty Dominos pizza box, and an iPad for watching movies. As the storm roared, the garage lights flicked off and howling gusts bent trees in a field across the street. Somewhere nearby, a thumping sound repeated over and over, likely a piece of metal clanging against a building.
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Scott Bazar, 45, also took refuge in the church parking garage after a last-minute decision to flee his house and the towering trees in his yard that he worried would topple down. Franklin, his rat terrier, and a cat named Bread Pudding also made the two-block drive from his house.
“This looks like obliteration. It’s pure power,” he said as he watched the winds topple a large ficus tree onto a church playground below.
Earlier in the morning, last-minute gawkers stood on the beach near what’s usually a busy tourist hub lined with miniature golf courses, oyster bars and condos.
“I was going to stay here until it got to a Category 4,” said Randy Simmons, 57, who came to check on his beachfront condo before heading to another inland property he owns. “This is going to be a big mess.”
(McClatchy correspondent Carol Rosenberg contributed to this report.)
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