Hurricane Michael

Craig Bailey/FLORIDA TODAY via USA TODAY NETWORK

Hurricane Michael Batters Florida; Person Confirmed Dead

October 10, 2018 - 6:23 am
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MEXICO BEACH, Fla. (WCBS 880/AP) — Hurricane Michael made landfall near Mexico Beach, Florida as a Category 4 storm Wednesday afternoon, with 155 mph winds.

Hours afterward, authorities confirmed that the hurricane turned deadly. A man was killed by a fallen tree at home on the Florida Panhandle.

Michael is the most powerful hurricane to hit the continental U.S. in nearly 50 years.

Its winds shrieking, the Category 4 storm 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.

Michael battered the shoreline with sideways rain, powerful gusts and crashing waves, swamping streets and docks, flattening trees, stripped away leaves, shredding awnings and peeling away shingles. It also set off transformer explosions and knocked out power to more than 190,000 homes and businesses.

"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.

With the hurricane still pounding the state hours after it came ashore, and conditions too dangerous in places for search-and-rescue teams to go out, there were no immediate reports of any deaths or serious injuries.

Michael was a meteorological brute that sprang quickly from a weekend tropical depression, going from a Category 2 on Tuesday to a Category 4 by the time it came ashore. It was also the most powerful hurricane on record to hit the Panhandle.

CBS2’s Lonnie Quinn reported that as it made landfall, Michael was only about 7 mph shy of being a Category 5 storm. The hurricane's winds decreased to 125 mph, and it dropped to a Category 3, as the storm moved over land.

By 8 p.m., Michael was a Category 1 storm with wind at 90 mph.

Major damage was seen right as the hurricane made landfall.

“We’re seeing pictures of damage all along the coast. It is the stuff that you would expect – flimsy buildings, mobile homes, roofs being ripped off, signs, that sort of thing – but quite frankly, the storm is still in progress. Nobody is going out there and doing official damage assessments yet, because it’s too darn dangerous to be out there doing that,” said CBS News Correspondent Peter King.

CBS News Correspondent Manuel Bojorquez reported in Tallahassee, 100 miles away from where the hurricane came ashore, impacts were already seen Wednesday afternoon.

“You have downed trees on either property or own power lines. There are already reports of tens of thousands of people in Florida without power right now,” Bojorquez told WCBS 880’s Steve Scott and Michael Wallace. “Of course, the worst impacts so far have been to the coast, where the hurricane roared ashore. Mexico Beach is one of those places where images have just come out this afternoon showing that houses and businesses are destroyed, and the storm surge has essentially taken over that part of the coastline there.”

There is also a threat of tornadoes associated with the hurricane, which is spreading through other parts of Florida and into Georgia.

The live oak trees for which Tallahassee is known are also at risk.

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 with tropical storm-force winds, rain and rising seas before daybreak, hours before the hurricane made landfall.

"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.

Quinn, who worked in Miami before coming to New York, explained that in lieu of basements – which homes in Florida usually do not have – people need to get into interior rooms such as bathrooms.

To illustrate the power of a hurricane, Quinn noted that back in 1992, his own family rode out Hurricane Andrew by getting under a mattress a the bathtub. After the hurricane passed, the house around them was destroyed and they were outside. Andrew was a Category 5, slightly stronger than Michael.

But the greatest concern is storm surge, which could amount to 14 feet and could send floodwaters deep inland and very high.

“There are more people who die from drowning in storm surge than any other cause in a hurricane,” King said.

In St. Marks, John Hargan and his family gathered up their pets and evacuated to a raised building constructed to withstand a Category 5 after water from the St. Marks River began surrounding their home. His 11-year-old son, Jayden, carried one of the family's dogs in a laundry basket in one arm and held a skateboard in the other as he waded through calf-high water.

Hargan, a bartender at a riverfront restaurant, feared he would lose his home and his job to the storm.

"We basically just walked away from everything and said goodbye to it," he said, tears welling up. "I'm freakin' scared I'm going to lose everything I own, man."

The storm appeared to be so powerful that it is expected to remain a hurricane as it moves over Georgia early Thursday. Forecasters said it will unleash damaging wind and rain all the way into the Carolinas, 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.

Meanwhile, 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.

House before landfall, meteorologists watched in real time as a new government satellite showed the hurricane's eye tightening, surrounded by lightning that lit it up "like a Christmas tree."

"I guess it's the worst-case scenario. I don't think anyone would have experienced this in the Panhandle," meteorologist Ryan Maue of weathermodels.com said. "This is going to have structure-damaging winds along the coast and hurricane-force winds inland."

The University of Georgia's Marshall Shepherd, a former president of the American Meteorological Society, called it a "life-altering event," writing on Facebook that he watched the storm's growth on satellite images with a pit in his stomach.

President Donald Trump said he plans to visit the area on either Sunday or Monday.

(© 2018 WCBS 880. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)