(TNS) - Hurricane Michael made landfall with 155 mph winds in the Florida panhandle just shy of Category 5 status.
The National Hurricane Center said the storm officially made landfall just northwest of Mexico Beach before 2 p.m. today, while its intense winds were wreaking havoc in Panama City Beach and surrounding cities.
Hurricane-force winds extend up to 45 miles from Michael’s center, with tropical-storm-force winds as far as 175 miles away. At 155 mph at 918 mb of pressure, this is the most intense storm to hit the panhandle in recorded history.
See images of Hurricane Michael as it strikes the Florida panhandle with 150 mph winds.
Michael was about 5 miles southwest of Mexico Beach and 20 miles south of Panama City, according to the 2 p.m. advisory. It is moving north-northeast at 14 mph.
“With the landfall of Michael's eye occurring, everyone in the landfall area is reminded not to venture out into the relative calm of the eye, as hazardous winds will increase very quickly as the eye passes,” the hurricane center said.
A wind gust of 130 mph was taken at a University of Florida/Weatherflow observing site near Tyndall Air Force Base before the instrument failed, according to the hurricane center while a wind gust of 129 mph was reported at the Panama City Airport.
Those winds were tearing some buildings apart in Panama City Beach. One beachfront structure under construction could be seen collapsing, and metal roofing material flew sideways across parking lots amid sheets of rain.
President Donald Trump was briefed on Hurricane Michael earlier. Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator of the Brock Long described the storm as a "Gulf Coast hurricane of the worst kind," which he says will be similar in strength to "an EF3 tornado making landfall."
The storm surge could reach 9-14 from Tyndall Air Force Base to the Aucilla River.
Michael is expected to dump 4-8 inches of rain in the Panhandle and Florida’s Big Bend area, with 12 inches possible in spots.
“This rainfall could lead to life-threatening flash floods,’’ the hurricane center said.
“Tropical-storm and hurricane conditions are spreading onshore along the U.S. Gulf Coast within the warning areas.’’
With more than 375,000 people up and down the Gulf Coast warned to clear out, the hurricane's leading edge began lashing the white-sand shoreline near Panama City with tropical storm-force winds, rain and rising seas before daybreak, hours before Michael's center was expected to blow ashore.
"I really fear for what things are going to look like there tomorrow at this time," Colorado State University hurricane expert Phil Klotzbach said in an email.
The unexpected brute quickly sprang from a weekend tropical depression, reaching Category 4 early Wednesday as it drew energy from the Gulf of Mexico's 84-degree waters. That was up from a Category 2 on Tuesday afternoon.
"The time to evacuate has come and gone ... SEEK REFUGE IMMEDIATELY," Florida Gov. Rick Scott tweeted, while the sheriff in Panama City's Bay County issued a shelter-in-place order before dawn.
The storm appeared to be so powerful — with a central pressure dropping to 919 millibars — that it is expected to remain a hurricane as it moves over Georgia early Thursday. Forecasters said it will unleash damaging winds and rain all the way into the Carolinas, which are still recovering from Hurricane Florence's epic flooding.
"We are in new territory," National Hurricane Center Meteorologist Dennis Feltgen wrote on Facebook. "The historical record, going back to 1851, finds no Category 4 hurricane ever hitting the Florida panhandle."
With Election Day less than a month away, the crisis was seen as a test of leadership for Scott, a Republican running for the Senate, and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, the Democratic nominee for governor. Just as Northern politicians are judged on how they handle snowstorms, their Southern counterparts are watched closely for how they deal with hurricanes.
Several hours ahead of landfall, seawater already was lapping over the docks at Massalina Bayou near downtown Panama City, and knee-deep water was rising against buildings in St. Marks, which sits on an inlet south of Tallahassee.
Huge waves pounded the white sands of Panama City Beach, shooting frothy water all the way to the base of wooden stairs that lead to the beach.
More than 5,000 evacuees sought shelter in the capital city, which is about 25 miles from the coast but is covered by live oak and pine trees that can fall and cause power outages even in smaller storms.
Only a skeleton staff remained at Tyndall Air Force Base, situated on a peninsula just south of Panama City. The home of the 325th Fighter Wing and some 600 military families appeared squarely targeted for the worst of the storm's fury, and leaders declared HURCON 1 status, ordering out all but essential personnel.
The base's aircraft, which include F-22 Raptors, were flown hundreds of miles away as a precaution.
Evacuations spanned 22 counties from the Florida Panhandle into north-central Florida. But civilians don't have to follow orders, and authorities feared many failed to heed their warnings to get out.
"We've told those who stayed to have their life jackets on when the storm comes," Tress Dameron, Franklin County emergency management coordinator, told The News Herald in Panama City.
Sally Crown planned to hunker down with her two dogs in the dangerously exposed coastal town of Apalachicola, population 2,500.
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