(RNN) – Hurricane Michael, one of the most-intense storms to ever hit the United States, roared ashore early early Wednesday afternoon along the Florida Panhandle.
“Eyewall of Michael coming ashore along the coast of the Florida Panhandle between St. Vincent Island and Panama City,” the National Hurricane Center tweeted just before 1 p.m. ET. “Do not venture out into the eye when it passes!”
Just before landfall, the storm intensified to 155 mph, just short of Category-5 status.
“We expect conditions across the panhandle to deteriorate rapidly,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott said. “The storm is here, it’s not safe to travel across the Panhandle. If you are in a coastal area, do not leave you house. The time to evacuate has come and gone.
“If you made the choice to stay, seek refuge,” he said. “The worst thing you could do is put your family in danger.”
The storm is expect to be the strongest to hit the region in recorded history. The National Hurricane Center called Michael “potentially catastrophic.”
“Life threatening storm surge and catastrophic winds moving onshore,” the NHC tweeted at 12 p.m. ET.
The storm strengthened to a Category 4 hurricane early Wednesday, giving it the potential to be the first hurricane of that category or higher to make landfall in the Florida Panhandle, likely near Panama City.
In contrast, Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Southeast Florida on Aug. 25, 2005, as a Category 1 hurricane with winds of 80 mph. The storm moved west across south Florida and into the Gulf of Mexico where it intensified into a Category 5.
Katrina eventually weakened to a Category 3 (sustained winds of 125 mph) before making landfall in southeast Louisiana and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, devastating large portions of New Orleans in the process.
Just a few weeks ago, Hurricane Florence made landfall on Sept. 14 near Wrightsville Beach, NC. The storm had maximum sustained winds of 90 mph, the National Hurricane Center said.
The hurricane, which has maximum-sustained winds of 150 mph, could strengthen even further, hours before its forecast landfall Wednesday afternoon, according to the National Hurricane Center. Officials worry the storm surge could be deadly, reaching 14 feet in some areas.
“The situation is about to get serious in parts of Bay, Gulf, and Franklin county,” the National Weather Service in Tallahassee tweeted at 11:19 a.m. ET. “We’ve issued our first ever Extreme Wind Warning. This means wind gusts in excess of 130 MPH are expected as #HurricaneMichael makes landfall in the next few hours. Shelter in place IMMEDIATELY.”
Scott said in a tweet that “the time for evacuating along the coast has come and gone.”
He announced Tuesday that 54 shelters were opening across the state in preparation.
In Tallahassee, police warned residents to get inside and stay there.
“Do not get out and drive in the storm,” Tallahassee Police tweeted. “Stay inside after the storm has passed so we can evaluate the safety of our community and identify hazards.”
In nearby Walton County, emergency management suspended its services as the storm approached.
In its 2 p.m. ET update, the NHC said Michael was located 20 miles southeast of Panama City, FL, and was moving north-northeast at 14 mph. Tropical storm winds extend out 185 miles from the center of the storm.
From the White House, President Donald Trump marveled at the expanse of the storm.
“It’s almost the entire size of the Gulf,” he said, flanked by Federal Emergency Management Administrator Brock Long and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.
The president said he will visit the state once the storm has passed, likely Sunday or Monday.
Residents of 13 Florida counties along the Panhandle and the west coast have been issued mandatory evacuation orders. Nine other counties have been issued voluntary or phased evacuation orders.
The evacuation orders affect at least 2 million people, CNN reports.
Many businesses in Panama City Beach, FL, were reportedly shuttered Tuesday evening as Michael neared.
Mandatory evacuations were ordered for the following Florida counties: Bay, Citrus, Dixie, Franklin, Gadsden, Gulf, Jackson, Jefferson, Levy, Okaloosa, Taylor, Wakulla and Walton.
Voluntary or phased evacuations were issued for these Florida counties: Calhoun, Hernando, Leon, Liberty, Madison, Pasco, Santa Rosa, Washington and Escambia.
Those in mobile homes or other weak structures in particular were urged to leave. Tolls were suspended in order to help people evacuate.
Ahead of the storm, residents stocked up on food, water and gasoline. Some gas stations in the Panhandle ran out of fuel Tuesday as demand surged, WKMG reported. Officials from AAA said fuel trucks were operating nonstop to keep the stations supplied.
By Monday morning, generators were sold out in many Tallahassee-area stores, according to the Tallahassee Democrat.
Michael is expected to produce a life-threatening storm surge for much of Florida and potentially Alabama’s coastlines. More than 325 miles of coastline from Mobile, AL, through the Florida Panhandle and Big Bend area are threatened, according to the National Weather Service.
Water levels began rising Tuesday.
A storm surge warning is in effect from the Okaloosa-Walton County line to the Anclote River in Florida, and a storm surge watch is in effect for the Anclote River to Anna Maria Island, including Tampa Bay.
Tropical storm-force winds extend up to 175 miles outward from the storm’s center, and hurricane-force winds extend outward up to 45 miles from the center.
After making landfall, Michael is expected to cut a path across the Southeast through Thursday night before heading north-eastward.
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