A day after the supercharged storm crashed ashore amid white sand beaches, fishing towns and military bases, Michael was no longer a Category 4 monster packing 250 km/h winds. As the tropical storm continued to weaken, it was still menacing the Southeast with heavy rains, blustery winds and possible spinoff tornadoes.
Authorities said at least two people have died. A man was killed by a tree falling on a panhandle home and, according to WMAZ-TV, an 11-year-old girl was killed by a tree falling on a home in southwest Georgia. Search and rescue crews were expected to escalate efforts to reach hardest-hit areas and check for anyone trapped or injured.
By 5 a.m., Michael's eye was about 72 kilometres west of Augusta, Ga., packing top winds of 80 km/h and moving at 33 km/h into South Carolina, the National Hurricane Center in Miami said. After South Carolina, it is expected to move across portions of central and eastern North Carolina and southeastern Virginia into the Atlantic Ocean by late Thursday or early Friday.
Video: Total Devastation in Mexico Beach, Florida from Hurricane Michael
An estimated 700,000 homes and businesses were without power in Florida, Alabama and Georgia early Thursday.
In Florida, the devastation was apparent in Mexico Bay. A reporter and photojournalist from the Tampa Bay Times ventured there in the dark early Thursday, finding the town of about 1,000 almost impassable. They reported seeing many destroyed homes, some with staircases leading to doors suspended three metres in the air with nothing on the other side, entire structures washed away. Refrigerators and toilets and piles of soggy furniture were strewn across properties.
'It was terrifying'Damage in Panama City near where Michael came ashore Wednesday afternoon was so extensive that broken and uprooted trees and downed power lines lay nearly everywhere. Roofs were peeled away, sent airborne, and homes were split open by fallen trees. Twisted street signs lay on the ground. Palm trees whipped wildly in the winds. More than 380,000 homes and businesses were without power at the height of the storm.
Vance Beu, 29, was staying with his mother at her home, Spring Gate Apartments, a complex of single-storey 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 café she manages and discovered a scene of breathtaking destruction.
Video: Hurricane Michael shreds through Florida
"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 man living in the panhandle was killed by a tree that toppled on a home, Gadsden County Sheriff's Office spokesperson Anglie Hightower said. She said 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.
Video: Hurricane Michael becomes Category 1 storm as it heads toward Georgia
Gov. Rick Scott announced afterward that thousands of law enforcement officers, utility crews and search and rescue teams would now go into recovery mode. He said "aggressive" search and rescue efforts would get underway.
The Florida Highway Patrol has closed a 125-kilometre stretch of Interstate 10 to clear debris from Hurricane Michael.
In an email sent early Thursday, spokesperson Eddie Elmore said the road was closed "due to extremely hazardous conditions." The statement did not indicate how long the work was expected to take.
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. It forced more than 375,000 people up and down the Gulf Coast to evacuate as it gained strength quickly while crossing the eastern Gulf of Mexico toward north Florida. It moved so fast that people didn't have much time to prepare, and emergency authorities lamented that many ignored the warnings and seemed to think they could ride it out.
In Panama City, plywood and metal flew off the front of a Holiday Inn Express. Part of the awning fell and shattered the glass front door of the hotel, and the rest of the awning wound up on vehicles parked below it.
Based on its internal barometric pressure, Michael was the third most powerful hurricane to hit the U.S. mainland, behind the unnamed Labour Day storm of 1935 and Camille in 1969. Based on wind speed, it was the fourth strongest, behind the Labour Day storm, Camille and Andrew in 1992.
After Michael left the panhandle late Wednesday, Kaylee O'Brien was crying as she sorted through the remains of the apartment she shared with three roommates at Whispering Pines apartments, where the smell of broken pine trees was thick in the air. Four pine trees had crashed through the roof of her apartment, nearly hitting two people.
"We haven't seen her since the tree hit the den. She's my baby," a distraught O'Brien said, her face wet with tears.
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As the storm hit, “Michael is upon us, it is time to seek refuge. Once you are sheltered, STAY PUT,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott tweeted. “Do not try to leave until the storm has passed. Multiple state and federal resources are staged and ready to respond as soon as it is safe.
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President Trump had approved an emergency declaration for Florida, which allows the federal government to provide resources and funding during the hurricane.
This Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2018, satellite image provided by NOAA shows Hurricane Michael, centre, in the Gulf of Mexico.
Hurricane Michael has made landfall in Florida as a Category 4 hurricane with winds up to 249 km/h — the most powerful hurricane to hit mainland U.S. in nearly 50 years.
Around 4,000 people have entered 70 evacuation shelters, FEMA officials told ABC, which added that power could be out in some places for weeks.
Evacuation orders were given to 500,000 people as the hurricane made landfall at Florida’s Panhandle, where 30 centimetres of rain and waves up to four-metres-high were expected.
As opposed to Hurricane Florence that struck the Carolinas in a slow, halting manner, Michael grew stronger quickly as it drew near shore.
Michael is the worst hurricane to hit the Florida Panhandle since the mid-1800s, the director of FEMA, Brock Long, told ABC News.
The Florida region is bracing for “major infrastructure damage,” specifically to electricity distribution, wastewater treatment systems and transportation networks, Jeff Byard, associate administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), told reporters on a conference call.
The storm already had a significant impact on offshore energy production. U.S. producers in the Gulf cut oil production by about 40 per cent and natural gas output by 28 per cent on Tuesday, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement said.
U.S. President Donald Trump has declared a state of emergency for the entire state of Florida, freeing up federal assistance to supplement state and local disaster responses.
After Florida, the storm is expected to hit Alabama, Georgia, the Carolinas — which is still reeling from flooding from Hurricane Florence — and then into Virginia.
A woman checks on her vehicle as Hurricane Michael passes through, after the hotel canopy had just collapsed, in Panama City Beach, Fla., Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018.
Emily Hindle lies on the floor at an evacuation shelter set up at Rutherford High School, in advance of Hurricane Michael, which is expected to make landfall in Panama City Beach, Fla., Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018.
A storm chaser climbs into his vehicle during the eye of Hurricane Michael to retrieve equipment after a hotel canopy collapsed in Panama City Beach, Fla., Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018.
Palm trees are seen during Hurricane Michael in Panama City, Fla., on Oct. 10, 2018, in this picture obtained from social media.
An unidentified person takes pictures of the surf and fishing pier on Okaloosa Island in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., on Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018, as Hurricane Michael approaches the Florida Gulf Coast.
Waves crash on stilt houses along the shore due to Hurricane Michael at Alligator Point in Franklin County, Fla., on Oct. 10, 2018. REUTERS/Steve Nesius
This photo made available by NASA shows the eye of Hurricane Michael, as seen from the International Space Station on Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018. (NASA via AP)
Jayden Morgan carries his dog through a flooded street in St. Marks, Fla., on Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018, as his family evacuates at the last minute before Hurricane Michael hits the state. (AP Photo/Brendan Farrington)
A man walks out of a liquor store with a “Looters will be shot” sign before Hurricane Michael comes ashore in Carrabelle.
Justin Davis, left, and Brock Mclean board up a business in advance of Hurricane Michael in Destin, Fla., on Oct. 9, 2018. (REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman)
Jayden Morgan, 11, evacuates his home as water starts to flood his neighbourhood in St. Marks, Fla., ahead of Hurricane Michael. Gaining fury with every passing hour, Hurricane Michael closed in Wednesday on the Florida Panhandle with potentially catastrophic winds of 150 mph, the most powerful storm on record ever to menace the stretch of fishing towns, military bases and spring-break beaches. (AP Photo/Brendan Farrington)