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Flooding in Florida up to roof level as Hurricane Michael continues destructive path inland

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, flattened trees, stripped away limbs and leaves, knocked out power, 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.

"While it might be their constitutional right to be an idiot, it's not their right to endanger everyone else!" Walton County Sheriff Michael Adkinson tweeted.

Satellite imagery of Hurricane Michael as it makes landfall at Florida about 1pm local time (6am NZT).
Satellite imagery of Hurricane Michael as it makes landfall at Florida about 1pm local time (6am NZT). Source: NOAA

Diane Farris, 57, and her son walked to a high school-turned-shelter near their home in Panama City to find about 1,100 people crammed into a space meant for about half as many. Neither she nor her son had any way to communicate because their lone cellphone got wet and quit working.

"I'm worried about my daughter and grandbaby. I don't know where they are. You know, that's hard," she said, choking back tears.
Hurricane-force winds extended up to 45 miles (75 kilometers) from Michael's center. Forecasters said rainfall could reach up to a foot (30 centimeters), and the life-threatening storm surge could swell to 14 feet (4 meters).

Based on its internal barometric pressure, Michael was the third most powerful hurricane to blow ashore on the U.S. mainland, behind the unnamed Labor Day storm of 1935 and Camille in 1969. Based on wind speed, it was the fourth-strongest, behind the Labor Day storm (184 mph, or 296 kph), Camille and Andrew in 1992.

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.

At the White House, President Donald Trump said the government is "absolutely ready for the storm." ''God bless everyone because it's going to be a rough one," he said. "A very dangerous one."

In Panama City, plywood and metal flew off the front of a Holiday Inn Express. Part of the awning fell and shattered the glass front door of the hotel, and the rest of the awning wound up on vehicles parked below it.

Hurricane Michael's Eye over the coast of Florida, about 6.30am NZT (1.30pm local time).
Hurricane Michael's Eye over the coast of Florida, about 6.30am NZT (1.30pm local time). Source: NASA