Thu. 8:56 a.m.: Hurricane Michael left path of destruction, isn’t done yet

Pine trees litter a yard in Port St. Joe, Fla., on Garrison Avenue on Wednesday after Hurricane Michael made landfall in the Florida Panhandle. Hurricane Michael formed off the coast of Cuba carrying major Category 4 landfall in the Florida Panhandle. Surge in the Big Bend area, along with catastrophic winds at 155mph. (Douglas R. Clifford/The Tampa Bay Times via AP)

PANAMA CITY, Fla. (AP) — The third-most powerful hurricane to hit the U.S. mainland in recorded history left a wide path of destruction across Florida and Georgia, destroying homes and shopping centers and felling trees that killed at least two people. And it’s not done yet.

Hurricane Michael finally weakened to a tropical storm this morning, no longer a Category 4 monster packing 155 mph winds. But it was still menacing the Southeast with heavy rains, blustery winds and possible spinoff tornadoes, soaking areas swamped by epic flooding last month from Hurricane Florence.

By 5 a.m., Michael’s eye was about 45 miles west of Augusta, Georgia, packing top winds of 50 mph and moving at 21 mph into South Carolina, the National Hurricane Center in Miami said.

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 wasn’t easy. The Florida Highway Patrol closed 80 miles of Interstate 10, the main east-west route along Florida’s Panhandle, to clear debris.

Many homes were ripped apart or washed away altogether in Mexico Beach, a town of 1,000 where the hurricane made landfall and the storm surge pushed lead-grey water up to the rooftops. Authorities said falling trees killed a man outside Tallahassee, Florida, and an 11-year-old girl in southwest Georgia.

Around Panama City, just west of where the center of Michael’s eye hit the shore, downed power lines lay nearly everywhere. Roofs had been peeled away and sent airborne. Aluminum siding was shredded to ribbons. Homes were split open by fallen trees. Hundreds of cars had broken windows, many turned askew by the wind. Twisted street signs lay on the ground. Pine trees were stripped into stalks and snapped off about 20 feet high.

More than 780,000 homes and businesses were without power this morning in the wake of the storm.

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.”

A Panhandle man was killed by a tree that toppled on a home, Gadsden County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Anglie Hightower said. But she added emergency crews trying to reach the home were hampered by downed trees and debris blocking roadways. The debris was a problem in many coastal communities and still hundreds of thousands of people were also left without power.

Michael sprang quickly from a weekend tropical depression, going from a Category 2 on Tuesday to a Category 4 by the time it came ashore. More than 375,000 people up and down the Gulf Coast were ordered or urged to evacuate, but it moved so fast that people didn’t have much time to prepare, and emergency authorities lamented that many ignored the warnings , thinking they could ride it out.

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 (184 mph), Camille and Andrew in 1992.

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