PANAMA CITY, Fla. (AP) — Supercharged by abnormally warm waters in the Gulf of Mexico, Michael slammed into the Florida Panhandle on Wednesday with potentially catastrophic winds of 155 mph, the most powerful hurricane to hit the U.S. mainland in nearly 50 years.
Its winds shrieking, Michael crashed ashore in the early afternoon near Mexico Beach, a tourist town about midway along the Panhandle, a lightly populated, 200-mile stretch of white-sand beach resorts, fishing towns and military bases.
It battered the coastline with sideways-blown rain, powerful gusts and crashing waves. It swamped streets and docks, flattened trees, stripped away limbs and leaves, knocked out power to a quarter-million homes and businesses, shredded awnings and sent shingles flying. Explosions apparently caused by blown transformers could be heard.
“We are catching some hell,” said Timothy Thomas, who rode out the storm with his wife in their second-floor apartment in Panama City Beach. He said he could see broken street signs and a 90-foot pine bent at a 45-degree angle.
The meteorological brute quickly sprang from a weekend tropical depression, becoming a furious Category 4 by early Wednesday, up from a Category 2 less than a day earlier. It was the most powerful hurricane on record to hit the Panhandle.
“I’ve had to take antacids I’m so sick to my stomach today because of this impending catastrophe,” National Hurricane Center scientist Eric Blake tweeted as the storm — drawing energy from the unusually warm, 84-degree Gulf waters — became more menacing.
More than 375,000 people up and down the Gulf Coast were urged to evacuate as Michael closed in. But emergency authorities lamented that many people ignored the warnings and seemed to think they could ride it out.