New York Times

Hurricane Michael Live Updates: Much of Florida Panhandle Is Left in Ruins

Hurricane Michael Live Updates: Much of Florida Panhandle Is Left in Ruins

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Much of Panama City, Fla., was left in tatters on Wednesday, after Hurricane Michael swept through the Florida Panhandle.CreditCreditEric Thayer for The New York Times

PANAMA CITY, Fla. — A vast search-and-rescue operation was underway on Thursday after Hurricane Michael cut a brutal path through the Florida Panhandle, leaving communities in its wake to confront splintered homes, twisted metal and flooding that reached to the rooftops of some homes.

At least two people were killed, and the authorities feared they would find more bodies in the rubble as specialized out-of-town teams, local officials and residents hurriedly searched for trapped survivors and assessed the damage. Another concern was the condition of two hospitals in Panama City, which Gov. Rick Scott said were damaged in the storm.

The storm made landfall near Mexico Beach, Fla., just shy of Category 5 strength on Wednesday afternoon and was not downgraded to a tropical storm until midnight, once it had raced through the Panhandle and southwest Georgia as a hurricane. It was expected to target the Carolinas, still recovering from Hurricane Florence last month, on Thursday.

Here are the latest developments:

• A man died on Wednesday after a tree crashed down on his home in Greensboro, northwest of Tallahassee, the Gadsden County Sheriff’s Office said. WMAZ-TV reported that a girl died in Seminole County, in southwestern Georgia, when her home was struck by debris.

• Much of the coast of the Florida Panhandle, including Panama City, Fla., and Mexico Beach, near where the hurricane made landfall, was left in ruins.

• At 5 a.m. on Thursday, Michael was about 30 miles west of Augusta, Ga., heading northeast with sustained wind speeds of up to 50 miles per hour. The storm is moving relatively quickly, at 21 m.p.h., and is expected to speed up as it crosses into the Carolinas on Thursday and blows out to sea by early Friday. Click on the map below to see the storm’s projected path.

• As of Thursday morning, more than 800,000 customers had lost power in Alabama, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, according to electrical providers in those states. In some Florida counties, such as Franklin and Leon, nearly every customer was without power.

• Michael took the nation by surprise, intensifying rapidly from a tropical storm to a major hurricane in just two days and leaving little time for preparations. Read more about why it strengthened so quickly here.

A storm that was initially forecast to arrive as a tropical storm instead amped up to furious intensity, hitting landfall just after midday Wednesday near the small seaside community of Mexico Beach, 100 miles southwest of Tallahassee, with winds topping 155 miles per hour.

Images from there showed swaths of shattered debris where houses once stood and structures inundated up to their rooftops; the streets of Panama City, farther west, were blocked by downed tree limbs and impossible tangles of power lines. Recreational vehicles, trucks and even trains were pushed over, surrounded by new lakes of water.

The full extent of the damage and other casualties was uncertain: Gov. Rick Scott told CNN on Thursday that two hospitals in Panama City were damaged in the storm and were “in the process of being closed down.”

He said that temporary hospitals were being set up to treat people injured in the storm, but that “we don’t know the numbers” of injured yet.

“My biggest concern would be loss of life,” he said.

Residents and emergency workers spent most of Wednesday hunkered down, and emerged only toward nightfall to begin assessing the storm’s toll. As dusk approached, though, the early outlines of a vast calamity were unfolding.

“You can’t drive a car anywhere, you can’t do anything because it’s littered with houses, pieces of houses,” said Patricia Mulligan, who rode out the storm with her family in a condo in Mexico Beach, a town of mom-and-pop shops and sport-fishing businesses about 35 miles southeast of Panama City. Outside, she said in a phone interview, she could see remnants of people’s lives strewn about: refrigerators, a beanbag chair, a washing machine, a kayak and a dresser.

Her brother, she said, lost a condo along the beach, and the other nearby units were also destroyed. “They’re not there,” she said. “It’s gone.”

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Wind and rain roared through the region, flooding homes and sending debris flying at dangerous speeds.Published OnCreditCreditImage by Eric Thayer for The New York Times

Brock Long, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said in an interview on CNN on Thursday that he was most concerned about a few areas on the Florida coast, particularly Mexico Beach, the eastern parts of Panama City, Apalachicola and around Tyndall Air Force Base. He said that it appeared that the hospital system in Panama City had suffered major damage.

Mr. Long said that he was equally concerned about communities in southwest Georgia, which received Category 2 wind speeds, because of the large number of mobile homes in that part of the state. “We are always worried about trees falling on manufactured homes and mobile homes,” he said.

Emergency responders and search-and-rescue teams would try to enter the hardest-hit areas after sunrise, but Mr. Long expected that process to be challenging, given all the fallen trees, debris and downed power lines. He worried that the number of people killed in the storm would rise once crews could reach places where people did not evacuate.

“People do not live to tell the tale about storm surge,” he said.

As the hurricane pillaged a suburban neighborhood of Panama Beach called Cherokee Heights on Wednesday, Fatima Zogaj found herself trapped in a house that was falling down all around her, and her family.

Ms. Zogaj, 41, and her husband, Ahmed Alsaqqa, had not given much thought to whether they should hunker down at home ahead of the storm. They bought their blocky brick, six-bedroom house about three years ago, far from the coast and in a neighborhood of sturdy-looking brick houses of recent build.

“We didn’t expect it to be this bad,” Ms. Zogaj said late Wednesday, standing outside in a neighborhood of broken trees, flooded lawns and ripped roof tiles.

The couple, Ms. Zogaj’s mother and their four children encountered few problems in the storm’s first hour as the wind began to whip and howl. But soon the rain, blowing sideways, began leaking through the window of a guest bedroom on the second floor. Their roof tiles started to fly off.

Then the ceilings began collapsing in the second-story bedrooms, one after the other, disgorging huge, fluffy piles of pink insulation.

It covered nearly everything. It covered their teenage daughter, Salma, head to toe after her bedroom ceiling collapsed on her. It covered the fancy sectional sofa in their high-ceiling living room. They inhaled it and coughed.

But outside the wind was still blowing, and there was no leaving the house. They retreated into the corners.

In the evening, they were thankful to be alive. But after telling their story, they were asked what would happen next, and they did not have an answer. They had no idea where they would sleep.

In a warming world, they say, hurricanes will be stronger, for a simple reason: Warmer water provides more energy that feeds them.

Hurricanes and other extreme storms will also be wetter, for a simple reason: Warmer air holds more moisture.

And storm surges from hurricanes will be worse, for a simple reason that has nothing to do with the storms themselves: Sea levels are rising.

Researchers cannot say, however, that global warming is to blame for the specifics of the latest storm, Hurricane Michael, which grew to Category 4 with sustained winds of 155 miles an hour, as it hit the Florida Panhandle on Wednesday. Such attribution may come later, when scientists compare the real-world storm to a fantasy-world computer simulation in which humans did not pump billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

There are already tantalizing suggestions, however, that the warming caused by all those greenhouse-gas emissions has had an impact on Michael. A 2013 study showed that sea-surface temperatures in the eastern Gulf of Mexico have warmed over the past century by more than what would be expected from natural variability.

“That general region has been one where there has been long-term climate warming,” said Thomas R. Knutson, a climate scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and lead author of the study. “We have reason to believe humans have made the water warmer.”

Richard Fausset reported from Panama City; Patricia Mazzei from Tallahassee, Fla.; and Alan Blinder from Atlanta. Reporting was contributed by Melissa Gomez and Matthew Haag from New York, and Daniel Victor from Hong Kong.

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