PANAMA CITY, Fla. — Hurricane Michael opened its bombardment of the Florida Panhandle on Wednesday morning, with wind and rain beginning to batter the coastline hours before the strengthening Category 4 storm was expected to make landfall with astonishing power.
The authorities warned that it was too late to flee the storm, which the National Hurricane Center described as “potentially catastrophic” with maximum sustained winds of 150 miles per hour.
“This is the worst storm that our Florida Panhandle has seen in a century,” Gov. Rick Scott of Florida warned. “Hurricane Michael is upon us, and now is the time to seek refuge.”
Here’s the latest:
• The hurricane is expected to be the strongest recorded storm to make landfall on the Panhandle. “This will be a catastrophic event the likes of which this region has never seen,” the National Weather Service office in Tallahassee, Fla., warned.
• The storm was about 15 miles west-southwest of Mexico Beach, Fla., as of 1 p.m., moving toward the coast at 14 m.p.h., according to the National Hurricane Center. Click on the map below to see the storm’s projected path.
• The eye of Michael is expected to make landfall in the Florida Panhandle on Wednesday afternoon, tracking northeast across Georgia and the Carolinas on Thursday before moving off the Mid-Atlantic coast on Friday.
• Weather forecasters and government officials are particularly worried about a storm surge, which they said could reach 13 feet in some areas, in a relatively flat region that is particularly vulnerable to it.
• Flash flooding is also a concern. The Florida Panhandle and Big Bend region, southeast Alabama and parts of Georgia could receive four to eight inches of rain, with some spots getting as much as a foot.
• The governors of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina have all declared emergencies for at least parts of their states, encompassing tens of millions of residents.
• The authorities said about 375,000 people live in areas covered by evacuation orders, but it was not clear how many had chosen to flee. The American Red Cross said that about 4,000 people slept in shelters on Tuesday. Here’s where to find shelter from Hurricane Michael.
• With the hurricane hitting in the month before a general election, for politicians “it’s a chance to show leadership, but it’s also a chance to fail at leadership.” Read more here.
Praying for safety in Panama City
In Panama City, the rain was already coming with that ominous hurricane rhythm, the outer bands of the storm bringing drizzle, followed by unhinged gushing, followed by drizzle again.
In the pre-dawn darkness, a few cars crawled down wide boulevards lined with closed-up retail shops and gas stations. About six blocks from the water, Pastor Carlos Thomas was standing on the front porch of Neal’s Temple First Born Church of the Living God, flagging down a passer-by in a driving band of rain.
He had driven the church’s big, shiny new tour bus from a tree-shrouded area to an open field across from the church where he thought it might be safer.
Pastor Thomas, 48, has spent his whole life in Panama City, and he said he remembered Hurricane Eloise, which passed near here in 1975 and caused millions of dollars in damage. But he said that Panama City had mostly been safe in his lifetime.
So he, like so many thousands on the Panhandle, had decided to ride it out.
“I believe from what I’ve seen in the past, we’re going to be O.K.,” he said. “I’m thinking God’s going to take us through it.”
Pastor Thomas said some of his flock had evacuated, particularly the old and infirm. But it was unclear how many people had decided to stay along the Gulf Coast.
A brother and sister, John and Laurie Hamm, had moved their mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease, to the Hilton Garden Inn, a few miles inland. Her house was near downtown Panama City, right along Watson Bayou. Ms. Hamm herself said that she lives in a townhouse one block from the beach.
“When they started a couple of days ago and said it was going to be a Category 1, it was, like, ‘Cat 1, no big deal,’” Ms. Hamm said. “When they said Cat 2, it was like, ‘Oh maybe we’d better pay attention.’ And when they said Cat 3 it was like, ‘Oh, Lord.’”
Mr. Hamm had come from Tampa to help move their mother and they had thought about moving west along the coast and out of the storm’s path. But they worried about getting stuck on Interstate 10.
And so here was Ms. Hamm, an evacuee, but just a few miles from home.
‘This is going to be bad,’ Florida’s governor warns
Inside the state emergency operations center in Tallahassee, Governor Scott stood before a line of stone-faced uniformed military personnel and law enforcement to offer a somber briefing on the coming storm.
“This is the worst storm the Florida Panhandle has seen in 100 years,” he said. “Again: This is the worst storm our Florida Panhandle has seen in a century.”
Amid concerns that local officials had failed to sufficiently prepare for a storm of Hurricane Michael’s magnitude, Mr. Scott said the state would fill any gaps in the response.
“This thing happened fast,” he said. “It wasn’t like Irma. This one happened very quickly.”
After the cameras turned off, the governor went to the work floor to speak to dozens of state workers sitting behind screens and phones, managing the state’s response.
“This is going to be bad,” Mr. Scott said.
In an earlier appearance on CNN, Governor Scott said the storm surge from Hurricane Michael would be far-reaching, stretching along the Florida coast from Pensacola to Tampa. With 13-foot surges predicted in some places, he said residents should be prepared for seawater to rush inland, potentially for miles, because of the state’s flat lands near the coast.
“We have never seen anything like this,” Mr. Scott told CNN. “People just don’t realize the impact of storm surge.”
Besides rushing water, the governor said that the winds would wallop cities on the coast and even those far from the beach.
With Michael poised to be the most severe tropical cyclone to strike the United States mainland so far this year, Mr. Scott said he had activated 3,500 members of the National Guard and that 1,000 emergency responders were ready for search-and-rescue efforts. There were also 19,000 workers prepared to move in after the storm to try to restore power.
A last chance to get outside in Tallahassee
Florida’s capital city awoke to a light drizzle that turned into a persistent, gusty rain. Cars roamed the roads, though the only businesses open appeared to be a handful of gas stations that still had fuel.
Before sunrise, Maria Mosca and her husband, Alex, took a stroll down the sidewalk in Thomasville Road in midtown, the only people outdoors as far as the eye could see.
“Just to get the restless energy out,” said Ms. Mosca, 31.
“It’s sort of our last chance to go outside for the whole day,” said Mr. Mosca, 35.
Their walk was in fact a rare moment of enjoyment: Ms. Mosca, a baker at a local doughnut shop, and Mr. Mosca, a state employee, normally do not get a morning off together. The couple, however, planned to spend the storm at a friend’s house.
“We have a lot of trees,” Mr. Mosca said, pointing to Tallahassee’s lush canopy above him. “And our house has a whole lot of trees.”
The latest forecasts have offered hope that the city would be spared the worst.
“We’re very lucky that the storm didn’t track further west overnight,” Mr. Mosca said. “But it’s terrible for the people in Panama City and Apalachicola.”
The storm will be a test for political candidates
Hurricane Michael comes as undecided voters — and polls suggest there are not many of them in Florida this year — are finalizing their choices less than four weeks before statewide elections. It presents opportunities and hazards for a host of candidates eager to display competence and gravitas as voters make up their minds and begin casting their ballots.
Among the candidates are Governor Scott, who is running a fierce race for Senate against the Democratic incumbent, Bill Nelson, and Mayor Andrew Gillum of Tallahassee, the Democratic nominee for governor.
How they tackle the preparations and response to the storm could cement their standing as front-runners — or upend months of painstaking campaign work, rendered useless by the late-arriving taint of a botched disaster.
“It’s a chance to show leadership, but it’s also a chance to fail at leadership,” said former Gov. Pat McCrory of North Carolina, who faced a hurricane about a month before the election he lost in 2016. “People are observing the littlest of things — how you dress, how you pronounce things, your passion, your empathy — and you’re being evaluated moment by moment.”
Michael is moving quickly
After deeply destructive hurricanes, like Florence last month and Harvey in 2017, both of which dawdled over land and dumped disastrous amounts of rain, Michael was moving at a speed that was “almost exactly average for storms,” said Brian McNoldy, a senior research associate at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.
The storm formed in the Western Caribbean and moved steadily northward, which is typical for this time of year, and will strike in October, well before the Nov. 30 close of the Atlantic hurricane season. And the storm has moved along a path well predicted by computer models, which have suggested a Panhandle landfall for days.
“It’s a very well-behaved storm,” Mr. McNoldy said.
Predicting its consequences is harder to do.
Other states in the South are on alert, too
Some 306 counties in the South — about 10 percent of all counties nationwide — were in states of emergency on Wednesday as Hurricane Michael threatened to ravage parts of the region and strain resources.
Gov. Nathan Deal of Georgia has declared an emergency for 92 of the state’s 159 counties, and Michael is expected to pass over at least some areas as a hurricane, not a diminished tropical storm.
The authorities have not ordered evacuations, the state said, but a handful of shelters are open.
“The time to prepare is ending, and those in the storm’s path should be prepared to shelter-in-place,” the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency said on Twitter on Wednesday.
Michael is also expected to race over the Carolinas — including communities still recovering from Hurricane Florence — as a tropical storm before moving offshore on Friday.
“Make no mistake: Hurricane Michael is a dreadful storm, and it poses serious risks to North Carolina,” said the state’s governor, Roy Cooper.
Richard Fausset reported from Panama City; Patricia Mazzei from Tallahassee, Fla.; and Alan Blinder from Atlanta. Reporting was contributed by John Schwartz, Matthew Haag and Sandra Garcia from New York, and Daniel Victor from Hong Kong.