Hurricane Michael slams into Florida with 249km/h winds, kills at least one as it charges into southeast

Hurricane Michael slammed into the Florida Panhandle with terrifying winds of 249 km/h today, splintering homes and submerging neighbourhoods before continuing its destructive charge inland across the US Southeast.

It was the most powerful hurricane to hit the continental US in nearly 50 years and at least one death was reported during its passage.

Supercharged by abnormally warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, the Category Four storm crashed ashore in the early afternoon Wednesday local time near Mexico Beach, a tourist town about midway along the Panhandle, a 320-kilometre stretch of white-sand beach resorts, fishing towns and military bases. 

After it ravaged the Panhandle, Michael barreled into south Georgia as a Category Three hurricane - the most powerful ever recorded for that part of the neighbouring state. It later weakened to a Category One hurricane, and there were reports it spawned possible tornadoes in central Georgia.

In north Florida, Michael battered the shoreline with sideways rain, powerful gusts and crashing waves, swamping streets and docks, flattening trees, shredding awnings and peeling away shingles. It set off transformer explosions and knocked out power to more than 388,000 homes and businesses.

A Panhandle man was killed by a tree that toppled on a home, Gadsden County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Anglie Hightower said. But she added emergency crews trying to reach the home were hampered by downed trees and debris blocking roadways. The man wasn't immediately identified.

Damage in Panama City was extensive, with broken and uprooted trees and power lines down nearly everywhere. Roofs were peeled off and homes split open by fallen trees. Twisted street signs lay on the ground. Residents emerged in the early evening to assess damage when rains stopped, though skies were still overcast and windy.

Vance Beu, 29, was staying with his mother at her apartment, Spring Gate Apartments, a small complex of single-story wood frame apartment buildings. A pine tree punched a hole in their roof and he said the roar of the storm sounded like a jet engine as the winds accelerated. Their ears even popped as the barometric pressure dropped.

"It was terrifying, honestly. There was a lot of noise. We thought the windows were going to break at any time. We had the inside windows kind of barricaded in with mattresses," Mr Beu said.

Kaylee O'Brien was crying as she sorted through the remains of the apartment she shared with three roommates at Whispering Pines apartments, where the smell of broken pine trees was thick in the air. Four pine trees had crashed through the roof of her apartment, nearly hitting two people. Her one-year-old Siamese cat, Molly, was missing.

"We haven't seen her since the tree hit the den. She's my baby," Ms O'Brien said, her face wet with tears.

In Apalachicola, Sally Crown rode out the storm in her house. The worst damage - she thought - was in her yard. Multiple trees were down. But after the storm passed, she drove to check on the cafe she manages and saw breathtaking destruction.

"It's absolutely horrendous. Catastrophic," Ms Crown said. "There's flooding. Boats on the highway. A house on the highway. 

Houses that have been there forever are just shattered."

Governor Rick Scott announced soon after the powerful eye had swept inland that "aggressive" search and rescue efforts would get underway as conditions allowed. He urged people to stay off debris-littered roads.

"If you and your family made it through the storm safely, the worst thing you could do now is act foolishly," he said.

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

More than 375,000 people up and down the Gulf Coast were urged to evacuate as Michael closed in. But the fast-moving, fast-strengthening storm didn't give people much time to prepare, and emergency authorities lamented that many ignored the warnings and seemed to think they could ride it out.

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