A stronger-than-expected Hurricane Michael battered Florida and parts of Georgia Wednesday with heavy rains and high winds, killing at least one man who was home when he was hit by a falling tree, authorities said.
“Catastrophic” was the word widely used to describe the Category 4 storm that pounded the Panhandle with 155 mph winds and a life-threatening storm surge.
The winds were only f mph short of a Category 5 storm. The last category 5 storm to strike Florida was Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
Mighty Michael knocked out power for nearly 400,000 Florida customers as of Wednesday evening, and another 60,000 customers were without power in Alabama.
Storm surges were predicted to hit land at 14 feet, and 12 inches of rain was expected across the Florida Panhandle and the state’s Big Bend region, as well as in southeast Alabama and parts of southwest and central Georgia.
“We are catching some hell,” Timothy Thomas, who rode out the storm with his wife in their home in Panama City Beach, Fla., told the Associated Press.
Diane Farris, 57, and her son walked to a high school that had been turned into a shelter near their home in Panama City. There, they found about 1,100 people crammed into a space meant for about half that many. Farris and her son were unable to communicate with their family because their only phone got wet and stopped working.
“I’m worried about my daughter and grandbaby,” Farris said. “I don’t know where they are. You know, that’s hard.”
The hurricane, whipped into a frenzy by abnormally warm waters in the Gulf of Mexico, is one of the most powerful to ever hit the U.S. mainland.
The apocalyptic superstorm roared ashore at about 1:30 p.m. near Mexico Beach, a tourist town about halfway up the Panhandle, a lightly populated, stretch of white-sand beach resorts, fishing towns and military bases.
The storm battered the coastline with sideways rain and powerful winds that bent trees and lifted heavy debris.
A Florida man died when a tree fell through his home, the first Hurricane Michael-related death reported.
A spokeswoman for the Gadsden County Sheriff’s Office told the Daily News that downed power lines and other blockages prevented help from getting to the unidentified man in his Greensboro home, near Tallahassee.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott warned of “unimaginable devastation.”
“This is the worst storm that our Florida Panhandle has seen in a century,” Scott said on Wednesday morning. “Hurricane Michael is upon us, and now is the time to seek refuge.”
Scott said search and rescue teams were heading into the state’s hardest-hit areas to help survivors.
President Trump was among those voicing concern about Florida as the Sunshine State took a pounding.
“We are with you Florida,” Trump tweeted, although he was actually headed to Pennsylvania for a campaign event, the same kind of decision he once bashed his predecessor, former President Barack Obama, for.
“Yesterday Obama campaigned with JayZ & Springsteen while Hurricane Sandy victims across NY & NJ are still decimated by Sandy. Wrong!” Trump tweeted in 2012, days after the super storm brought chaos to the five boroughs and surrounding areas.
National Hurricane Center Director Ken Graham warned of structural damages including downed power lines and trees as well as winds strong enough to rip the roofs off houses. He added that the effects of the storm will extend far beyond the coast and into some parts of Central Georgia.
A storm surge warning was in effect Wednesday from the Okaloosa/Walton county lines to the Anclote River and from the Anclote River to Anna Maria Island — which includes Tampa Bay. Several areas could see surges peaking at 14 feet, which is a complete “inundation” of water, Graham noted.
Michael reportedly killed at least 13 people in Central America: six in Honduras, four in Nicaragua and three in El Salvador.
More than 370,000 people in Florida were ordered to evacuate, but officials said many ignored the warning.
Schools and state offices in the area are to remain shut this week.
Michael is expected to be carrying tropical storm-force winds when it reaches the Carolinas, which are already reeling from last month’s Hurricane Florence.