UPDATED 10 A.M. EDT THURSDAY
WASHINGTON — Hurricane Michael was downgraded to a Category Two storm Wednesday evening after making landfall just shy of a Category Five along the Florida Panhandle coast in the afternoon and clobbering the region with pounding winds, pelting rain and dangerous flooding.
At least two deaths have been blamed on the historic storm.
It was the worst hurricane on record to hit the Panhandle, officials say, and the strongest in the continental United States since Andrew slammed South Florida in 1992.
Michael made landfall near Mexico Beach, between St. Vincent Island and Panama City, clobbering the region with pounding winds, pelting rain and dangerous flooding. Wind gusts of up to 155 miles per hour were reported. Category Five hurricanes have gusts of at least 157 miles per hour.
Michael blew away roofs and billboards, toppled trees and power lines, and flooded streets and parks as it made its way inland from the coast. While many hurricanes lose power after they make landfall, Michael retained its strength for hours as it roared east before being downgraded.
Storm surge was as high as nine feet high in Apalachicola, a tiny city on the shore of Apalachicola Bay, an inlet of the Gulf of Mexico.
In the late afternoon, some residents of the Panhandle, Georgia and Alabama were warned to shelter in place and take cover because forecasters had spotted several tornadoes on radar.
A man in Greensboro, a Florida Panhandle town near Tallahassee, was killed when a tree fell on his house, a spokesperson for the Gadsden County Sheriff’s office said. First responders, who were summoned around 6:30 EDT, were delayed in reaching the home due to downed power lines and other road blockages.
Authorities in Seminole County, Georgia said an 11-year-old girl was killed overnight when debris crashed into her home.
The eye of the hurricane was approaching “extreme southeastern Georgia and southwest Georgia” moving north-northeast at 16 mph with 105-miles-per-hour winds, the National Hurricane Service said in an advisory issued at 7 p.m. EDT.
More than 309,000 power customers in Florida had lost electricity as of 7:35 p.m. EDT, according to PowerOutage.com. But utility companies already have begun restoring power to some homes and businesses. About 288,000 customers in Florida were still without power as of 5:05 p.m. EDT, plus some customers in Georgia and Alabama.
More than 375,000 people in 22 counties along the Gulf Coast had been ordered to evacuate. Thousands of people heeded officials’ pleas but thousands of others stayed behind.
Wednesday morning Florida Gov. Rick Scott had warned residents: “The time to evacuate has come and gone … SEEK REFUGE IMMEDIATELY.”
Later, President Donald Trump along with Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and FEMA Administrator Brock Long briefed reporters in the Oval Office about the dangerous storm shortly before it made landfall.
Long said: “Unfortunately, this is a Gulf Coast hurricane of the worst kind.”
Storm surges could reach as high as 14 feet, he said.
Scott sent a request to the president asking that he declare Hurricane Michael a major disaster. “This will expedite resources and assistance for impacted communities from the federal government,” Scott said in a statement. He had declared a state of emergency for 26 counties on Sunday, and on Monday expanded it to include a total of 35 of Florida’s 67 counties.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal on Wednesday expanded the state of emergency he had issued on Tuesday, adding 16 more counties to the 92 he had declared covered.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey had issued a state of emergency on Tuesday in advance of the hurricane.
Hurricane Leslie in the Atlantic Ocean is forecast to move north-northeast on Thursday but it expected to weaken by Friday and pose no threat, the National Hurricane Center said Wednesday evening.