At least one person has died after Hurricane Michael slammed into the Florida Panhandle with terrifying winds of 155 mph.
Supercharged by abnormally warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, the Category 4 storm crashed ashore in the early afternoon near Mexico Beach, a tourist town about midway along the Panhandle, a 200-mile stretch of white-sand beach resorts, fishing towns and military bases.
After it ravaged the Panhandle, Michael barrelled into south Georgia as a Category 3 hurricane — the most powerful ever recorded for that part of the neighbouring state.
It later weakened to a Category 1 hurricane, and there were reports it spawned possible tornadoes in central Georgia.
Hurricane Michael slammed into the Florida Panhandle with winds of 155 mph (Douglas R Clifford/Tampa Bay Times via AP)
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 was not 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´Brian weeps inside her home after several trees fell on it during Hurricane Michael (Gerald Herbert/AP)
Kaylee O’Brien was crying as she sorted through the remains of the apartment she shared with three roommates at Whispering Pines apartments.
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.
In Apalachicola, Sally Crown rode out the storm in her house. The worst damage — she thought — was in her garden.
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 under way 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 2 on Tuesday to a Category 4 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.
Hurricane-force winds extended up to 45 miles from Michael’s centre at the height of the storm. Forecasters said rainfall could reach up to a foot in spots.
Based on its internal barometric pressure, Michael was the third most powerful hurricane to hit the US mainland, behind the unnamed Labour Day storm of 1935 and Camille in 1969.
Based on wind speed, it was the fourth-strongest, behind the Labour Day storm (184 mph), Camille and Andrew in 1992.
At the White House, President Donald Trump said, “God bless everyone because it’s going to be a rough one,” he said. “A very dangerous one.” His office said he would tour the devastated areas next week.
“We are in new territory,” National Hurricane Cente Meteorologist Dennis Feltgen wrote on Facebook. “The historical record, going back to 1851, finds no Category 4 hurricane ever hitting the Florida panhandle.”