The most powerful hurricane on record to hit Florida’s Panhandle has left wide destruction and at least one person dead as it crossed Georgia toward the Carolinas.
Authorities said a man was killed by a tree falling on a Panhandle home, while search and rescue crews were expected to escalate efforts to reach hardest-hit areas and check for anyone trapped or injured in the storm debris.
A day after the supercharged storm crashed ashore amid white sand beaches, fishing towns and military bases, Michael was no longer a Category 4 monster packing 155 mph winds.
Downgraded to a tropical storm early on Thursday over south-central Georgia, it continued to weaken but was still menacing the Southeast with heavy rains, blustery winds and possible spin-off tornadoes.
After daylight on Thursday residents of north Florida would just be beginning to take stock of the enormity of the disaster.
Damage in Panama City near where Michael came ashore on Wednesday afternoon was so extensive that broken and uprooted trees and downed power lines lay nearly everywhere.
Roofs were peeled away, sent airborne, and homes were split open by fallen trees, while more than 380,000 homes and businesses were without power at the height of the storm.
Vance Beu, 29, was staying with his mother at her home, Spring Gate Apartments, a complex of single-story wood frame buildings where they piled up mattresses around themselves for protection.
A pine tree punched a hole in their roof and his ears even popped when the barometric pressure went lower. The roar of the winds, he said, sounded like a jet engine.
“It was terrifying, honestly. There was a lot of noise. We thought the windows were going to break at any time,” Mr Beu said.
Sally Crown rode out Michael on the Florida Panhandle thinking at first that the worst damage was the many trees downed in her yard. But after the storm passed, she emerged to check on the cafe she manages and discovered a scene of 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 that thousands of law enforcement officers, utility crews and search and rescue teams would now go into recovery mode.
“Hurricane Michael cannot break Florida,” Mr Scott vowed.
Michael 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 forced more than 375,000 people up and down the Gulf Coast to evacuate as it gained strength quickly while crossing the eastern Gulf of Mexico toward north Florida.
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.
It also brought the dangers of a life-threatening storm surge.
In Mexico Beach, with a population of 1,000, the storm shattered homes, leaving floating piles of lumber.
“We are in new territory,” National Hurricane Centre Meteorologist Dennis Feltgen wrote on Facebook.
“The historical record, going back to 1851, finds no Category 4 hurricane ever hitting the Florida panhandle.”
After Michael left the Panhandle late on Wednesday, 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, and 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