Category 4 Hurricane Michael roars into Florida

Mokeyonia Bell (left) takes her child, Jerah'monie Anthony Bell, 2 months, from godmother Ashley Fillingim, at an evacuation shelter set up at Rutherford High School, in advance of Hurricane Michael, in Panama City Beach, Florida.


Gaining fury with every passing hour, Hurricane Michael has begun pounding the US state of Florida, with the massive storm packing potentially catastrophic winds of up to 240kmh.

It was the most powerful storm on record to menace the roughly 320-kilometre stretch of fishing towns, military bases and spring-break beaches.

"I've had to take antacids I'm so sick to my stomach today because of this impending catastrophe," US National Hurricane Center scientist Eric Blake tweeted as the storm - supercharged by the Gulf of Mexico's abnormally warm 29 degrees Celsius - grew more scary.

The huge storm quickly sprang from a weekend tropical depression, becoming a furious Category 4 by early on Wednesday (Wednesday night NZT). Less than a day earlier, Michael was a Category 2.

"The time to evacuate has come and gone ... SEEK REFUGE IMMEDIATELY," Florida Governor Rick Scott tweeted, while the sheriff in Panama City's Bay County issued a shelter-in-place order before dawn.

More than 375,000 people up and down the Gulf Coast were urged to evacuate. But emergency authorities lamented that many people ignored the warnings and seemed to think they could ride it out.

Diane Farris, 57, and her son walked to a high school-turned-shelter near their home in Panama City to find about 1100 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.

As of 11.30am US Eastern Time (4.30am Thursday NZT), Michael was centred about 80 kilometres south of Panama City, its winds at 240kmh. It was moving at 22kmh. Hurricane-force winds extended up to 75 kilometres from its centre.

Rainfall could reach up to 30 centimetres, and the life-threatening storm surge could swell to 4 metres.

The storm appeared to be so powerful that it is expected to remain a hurricane as it moves over Georgia early on Thursday (Thursday NZT). Forecasters said it will unleash damaging wind and rain all the way into the Carolinas, which are still recovering from Hurricane Florence's epic flooding.

Meteorologists watched satellite imagery in complete awe as the storm intensified.

"We are in new territory," National Hurricane Center Meteorologist Dennis Feltgen wrote on Facebook. "The historical record, going back to 1851, finds no Category 4 hurricane ever hitting the Florida panhandle."

Colorado State University hurricane expert Phil Klotzbach said in an email: "I really fear for what things are going to look like there tomorrow at this time."

With Election Day less than a month away, the crisis was seen as a test of leadership for Scott, a Republican running for the Senate, and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, the Democratic nominee for governor. Just as Northern politicians are judged on how they handle snowstorms, their Southern counterparts are watched closely for how they deal with hurricanes.

Hours ahead of landfall, seawater was already lapping over the docks at Massalina Bayou near downtown Panama City, and knee-deep water was rising against buildings in St Marks, which sits on an inlet south of Tallahassee, Florida's capital.

Huge waves pounded the white sands of Panama City Beach, shooting frothy water all the way to the base of wooden stairs that lead to the beach.

More than 5000 evacuees sought shelter in Tallahassee, which is about 40km from the coast but is covered by live oak and pine trees that can fall and cause power outages even in smaller storms.

Only a skeleton staff remained at Tyndall Air Force Base, situated on a peninsula just south of Panama City. The home of the 325th Fighter Wing and some 600 military families appeared squarely targeted for the worst of the storm's fury, and leaders declared HURCON 1 status, ordering out all but essential personnel.

The base's aircraft, which include F-22 Raptor fighter jets, were flown hundreds of kilometres away as a precaution. Forecasters predicted 2.7m to 4.2m of water at Tyndall.

Evacuations spanned 22 counties from the Panhandle into north-central Florida.

"We've told those who stayed to have their life jackets on when the storm comes," Tress Dameron, Franklin County emergency management coordinator, told The News Herald in Panama City.

In St Marks, John Hargan and his family gathered up their pets and moved to a raised building constructed to withstand a Category 5 after water from the St Marks River began surrounding their home.

Hargan's 11-year-old son, Jayden, carried one of the family's dogs in a laundry basket in one arm and held a skateboard in the other as he waded through calf-high water.

Hargan, a bartender at a riverfront restaurant, feared he would lose his home and his job to the storm.

"We basically just walked away from everything and said goodbye to it," he said, tears welling up. "I'm freakin' scared I'm going to lose everything I own, man."

Read More: https://www.stuff.co.nz/world/americas/107755320/.html
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