PANAMA CITY (CBSMiami/AP/CNN) — At least two people are dead as Michael continues to work its way through the southeastern United States. Wednesday, the Category 4 hurricane hit the Florida Panhandle with frightening fury, leaving behind widespread damage.
The Hurricane Michael was packing maximum sustained winds of 155 mph as it made landfall near Mexico Beach, a Gulf Coast beach town.
In terms of wind intensity, that made it much stronger than Hurricane Florence, which had winds of 90 mph when it blew ashore in North Carolina last month.
A reporter and photojournalist from the Tampa Bay Times ventured to Mexico Beach early Thursday, finding the town of about 1,000 almost impassable. They reported seeing many destroyed homes, some with staircases leading to doors suspended 10 feet in the air with nothing on the other side, entire structures washed away. Refrigerators and toilets and piles of soggy furniture are strewn across properties.
And amid the wreckage, the crew spotted survivors — people who rode out the storm. One couple was looking for their mother’s portable oxygen machine. Another man was shining a flashlight from his balcony as alarms sounded and fires burned.
Thousands of law enforcement officers and search and rescue teams rolled out in its wake to find survivors amid the wreckage of homes where people defied evacuation orders. Michael washed away white sand beaches, hammered military bases and destroyed coastal communities, stripping trees to stalks, shredding roofs, toppling trucks and pushing boats into buildings.
It will take some time for residents of north Florida to take stock of the enormity of the disaster. Reaching the worst-hit areas isn’t easy. The Florida Highway Patrol closed 80 miles of Interstate 10, the main east-west route along Florida’s Panhandle, to clear debris.
Authorities said falling trees killed a man outside Tallahassee, Florida, and an 11-year-old girl in southwest Georgia.
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,” 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,” Crown said. “There’s flooding. Boats on the highway. A house on the highway. Houses that have been there forever are just shattered.”
Gov. Rick Scott said search and rescue efforts would be “aggressive.”
“Hurricane Michael cannot break Florida,” Scott vowed.
Here are some other facts that show the power of this “monstrous storm.”
Michael was the first Category 4 storm on record to make landfall in the Florida Panhandle.
It was also the first major hurricane (Category 3 or above) to strike the Florida Panhandle since Hurricane Dennis in 2005.
After Michael was downgraded Wednesday afternoon, it became the first Category 3 hurricane to track into Georgia since the 1898.
A wind gust of 130 mph was reported near Tyndall AFB, close to Panama City, before the instrument failed.
Only three major hurricanes made landfall in the Panhandle since 1950 before this: Eloise in 1975, Opal in 1995 and Dennis in 2005.
Hurricane Michael, with 155 mph winds at landfall, is the strongest storm to make landfall in the continental US since Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
The “forecast cone” for Michael stretches from Florida all the way north to Maryland.
Before Michael made landfall, about 30 million people were under a hurricane watch or warning, or tropical storm watch or warning, across six states (Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina).
Michael is the seventh hurricane of the year in the Atlantic Basin. On average, the Atlantic has about five hurricanes by October 8.
Its tropical-storm-force wind speeds stretch for more than 320 miles — equal to the distance between New York City and Pittsburgh.
Florida has had more hurricanes in October than in any other month.
Hurricane Michael rapidly intensified 45 mph in the 24 hours leading up to landfall.
(© Copyright 2018 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press & CNN contributed to this report.)