PANAMA CITY — Hurricane Michael, the most powerful storm on record to reach Florida’s Panhandle, began its terrifying tear through Big Bend coastal communities shortly before 2 p.m. Wednesday.
First came the shrieking winds, at maximum speeds of 155 mph, ripping off roofs and bringing down palm trees. Then the rain, sideways, with the force of a million tiny daggers. Finally, the storm surge, swallowing beach-front homes and businesses from Panama City to Apalachicola, leaving behind 10 feet of water in some places.
By the time the eye of the storm passed through Florida to Georgia late Wednesday evening, little was recognizable in this Spring Breakers paradise, this cradle of oyster beds and fishing boats, this military hotbed.
"It was very dramatic," said Mike Lindsey, who spent the storm with his wife plugging leaks in their Panama City business, Elegant Endeavors Antique Shop. "Very intense."
The Category 4 storm was the fourth-strongest at landfall since record keeping began in 1851, topping other recent deadly storms such as Hurricane Katrina (2005) in pressure and Hurricane Charley (2004) in wind speed.
Search and rescue teams had already begun deploying toward Bay County and other affected areas along the coast by 6 p.m., as well as by air and from the Coast Guard stationed in Tampa and Alabama, Gov. Rick Scott said from the state’s emergency operations center in Tallahassee.
The coastline was battered by powerful gusts and crashing waves. It swamped streets and docks, flattened trees, stripped away limbs and leaves.
The cleanup will be considerable, but there are still harrowing days ahead before that begins. There were 388,160 homes and businesses across the Panhandle and Big Bend regions without power Wednesday evening, according to the state. Many will be without electricity for weeks.
In the old historic district of Panama City, just past 2 p.m., the streets resembled a war zone. Tree branches littered the streets. Roofs peeled off. The large golden arches of a McDonald’s lay face first on the flooded pavement.
Gusts tore off the roof of the First Presbyterian Church, and toppled a large brick facade of its adjacent education center, the site of Panama City’s first high school in the 1900s.
Along Harrison Avenue, the main business strip, gusts exploded the glass windows at Harris Business Machines, leaving the rain to soak a series of copy machines. A ripped awning hung by a thin threat off one storefront. Decorative city trash cans rolled along the pavement like metal tumble weeds.
One fatality was reported by 8 p.m., a Greensboro man killed by a tree falling into his home. Scott said he was concerned about people who remained behind in areas where storm surge may have reached 14 feet and are now forced to survive the wreckage before help can arrive.
More than 375,000 people had fallen under voluntary or mandatory evacuation orders before Michael hit. Only a skeleton staff remained at Tyndall Air Force Base, situated on a peninsula just south of Panama City. But many others did not leave.
Speaking on CNN, Scott did not mince words.
"I am scared to death for people who chose not to evacuate."
Hurricane Michael first made landfall near Mexico Beach, a coastal city of just 1,200 people best known as the westernmost boundary of Florida’s scalloping waters.
The destruction was swift and total. News crews and amateur videographers captured buildings that seemed to explode from the wind.
The storm shattered homes, leaving floating piles of lumber. The lead-gray water was so high that roofs were about all that could be seen of many homes.
It was a devastating blow to a city rebuilt after Hurricane Opal 23 years ago.
Never before has such an intense storm reached landfall this late in the year. But Hurricane Michael was an abnormal storm since the first public advisory on Saturday.
It intensified quickly, feeding off the Gulf of Mexico’s unseasonably warm waters as it moved from the coast of the Yucatan into the Gulf of Mexico. But Monday, forecasters predicted a dangerous hurricane headed for the Florida coast, leaving little time for emergency preparations.
Based on its internal barometric pressure, Michael was the third-most powerful hurricane to hit the U.S. mainland, behind the unnamed Labor Day storm of 1935 and Camille in 1969. Based on wind speed, it was the fourth-strongest, behind the Labor Day storm, Camille and Andrew in 1992.
Philip Klotzbach, a meteorologist and hurricane expert at Colorado State University, said Michael is the strongest October storm to hit the United States on record. It is also only the second October Category 4 hurricane to hit Florida.
The Tampa Bay area, placed in a state of emergency by Scott earlier in the week, was largely spared from Michael’s brute, though high tide and storm surge combined to flood some of the region’s coasts and low-lying areas.
Even in Tallahassee, explosions apparently caused by blown transformers could be heard as Michael reached Florida’s shores.
In Panama City, plywood and metal flew off the front of a Holiday Inn Express. Part of the awning fell and shattered the glass front door of the hotel, and the rest of the awning wound up on vehicles parked below it.
"Oh my God, what are we seeing?" said evacuee Rachel Franklin, her mouth hanging open.
The hotel swimming pool had whitecaps, and people’s ears popped because of the drop in barometric pressure. The roar from the hurricane sounded like an airplane taking off.
About 13 miles from Mexico Beach, Hurricane Michael devastated Port St. Joe, snapping pine trees like popsicle sticks, flinging boats large and small and sending waist-deep water surging onto land.
At daybreak, wind was all that could be heard downtown and rain pelted sideways from gray skies.
There were still several boats in the marina at Port St. Joe, protected by a short hook of land.
Rex McCormick, 25, and Alyssa Graziano, 23, came down to the marina to see the edge of Hurricane Michael. He said it wasn’t his first storm, won’t be his last. It’s her first.
"Leaving’s kind of easier said than done" when you have pets and family here, Graziano said. "The water already came in a whole lot." She pointed to a concrete landing about 15 feet offshore. Normally you can fish there, she said. Now it’s underwater.
It would only get worse.
Whether the building was made of cinder block or wood, Michael’s 155 mph winds blew holes right through it. There were missing walls and roofs everywhere. The hurricane even destroyed the corners off buildings.
The streets were left impassable as flood waters, downed power lines and debris blocked roadways. Even at 4 p.m., the winds still made it hard to stand upright.
The Cape San Blas Lighthouse, more than 130 years old, survived the storm. The steeple of First Baptist Church of Port St. Joe did not. It was snapped in half, left dangling off the side of the church at 102 Third St.
North of Port St. Joe, the road out of town smelled like sap. State Road 71 was littered with shattered pine trees.
Shortly before 4 p.m., Gov. Rick Scott announced he had requested President Donald Trump declare a major disaster in Florida, which would speed up resources and assistance from the federal government. The request calls for full federal funding for debris removal and emergency protective measures, as well as additional federal money for other types of public assistance for counties.
The state, according to Scott’s letter, has already spent nearly $40 million on responding to Michael.
Speaking from the Oval Office at 1 p.m., Trump anticipated visiting the site of storm damage on Sunday or Monday. He said he did not cancel a planned political rally Wednesday evening in Pennsylvania because he didn’t want to disappoint supporters.
"We want to get down there as soon as possible," Trump said. "At the same time, I don’t want to get down where we’re interfering with the people, first responders, the FEMA people."
Michael was downgraded to a Category 1 hurricane Wednesday night, where it is expected to remain as it passes through the southeast United States until it reaches the Atlantic off of Virginia. Forecasters predicted heavy rainfall over the next few days in the Carolinas, still recovering from Hurricane Florence’s epic flooding.
Florida’s Cedar Key found itself submerged Wednesday.
The bridge to Cedar Key was closed for hours while officials waited for the water to recede.
Residents who evacuated before a dangerous storm surge swallowed the islands waited in a gravel parking lot on the mainland about a mile from the bridge to return home. Reports from friends who stayed for the surge were that it wasn’t as bad as Hermine in 2016. That’s the benchmark.
Scott Moots, 54, was anxious to get back. He’s the director of aquaculture for Florida Shellfish, meaning he grows clam seed. The seed, which grows into edible clams, supports Cedar Key’s most well-known industry.
"I’ve got 15 million microscopic to semi-microscopic organisms that need my attention," he said.
Instead he was holding his dog, an exceptionally energetic lab mix named Noodles while his daughter Eleanor, 4, slept in the back seat of his Toyota coupe.
The pair had stayed during Hermine, and Moots said he didn’t want to put his daughter through another storm. This time they evacuated to friends in Gainesville.
"We were braced and we were prepared" this time, he said of his lab, and the community. "I hope I’m right."
Times/Herald staff writers Josh Solomon and Elizabeth Koh contributed to this report, which uses information from the Associated Press.