Florida Panhandle gets slammed by Hurricane Michael's 155 mph winds

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Photo shows catastrophic damage in Mexico Beach, FL, houses flooded up to their roofs

(CNN) — Hurricane Michael is wreaking havoc in the Florida Panhandle, tearing homes apart and flooding streets in the strongest storm to hit the continental U.S. since Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Winds up to 150 mph dashed homes into pieces in Mexico Beach, close to where Michael's center crossed on Wednesday afternoon as a Category 4 storm. The storm is now moving into extreme southeastern Alabama and southwest Georgia, bringing life-threatening storm surge and catastrophic winds.

Live updates on Hurricane Michael

Mexico Beach resident Patricia Mulligan compared the sea of debris to what she witnessed in 1992 when Andrew hit.

And she estimated that it would take the same amount of time to fix the damage — possibly months or even a year.

Michael was downgraded to Category 3 storm at 5 p.m. Wednesday, which means it is still considered a major storm. Maximum sustained winds up to 125 mph posed concerns over downed trees in densely wooded areas inland such as Tallahassee.


Track the storm

The threat of storm surge and catastrophic winds continues not just in the Panhandle but in southern Alabama and Georgia. A tornado watch has been issued by the Storm Prediction Center for much of northern Florida and south and central Georgia until 2 a.m. ET Thursday.


Key developments


• Florida's Gulf Power warns that customers in high impact areas could be without power for weeks.

• Hurricane Michael and its outer bands will spread northeast and be capable of quickly spinning up tornadoes.

• More than 192,000 outages have been reported in Florida, most of them — 95,572 — in Bay County.

• Line and tree removal crews from utility companies from more than 20 states arrived to assist with recovery.

• Michael still could be a Category 2 storm (wind speeds of 96-110 mph) when it crosses into southern Georgia on Wednesday evening


Scenes of devastation


After making landfall near Mexico Beach around 2 p.m. ET, the eye of Michael moved inland over the Florida Panhandle east of Panama City.

Wind gusts blew out windows in homes and office buildings, including the First Federal Bank and Medical Sacred Heart. The hospital said it is running off of generators and patients have been moved to safe areas of the facility.


As winds subsided in Panama City, resident Reid Garrett said his concerns shifted to flooding outside his apartment complex, which surrounded by downed trees.

Across the bay in Panama City Beach, a resort city on the Gulf of Mexico known for its white-sand beach and amusement parks, winds of about 100 mph furiously whipped the trees in the early afternoon and pulled apart homes.


'I'm definitely getting a little bit more scared'


Also the strongest hurricane to hit the Panhandle in recorded history, Michael's rapid intensification may have caught some coastal residents by surprise, despite forecasters' warnings of strengthening. It was a tropical storm in the Gulf on Sunday and a Category 1 hurricane midday Monday.

Newlyweds Jessica Ayers and Don Hogg told CNN they and some relatives were staying put in Panama City on Wednesday morning, having decided against leaving because they weren't in an evacuation zone. They had a generator in case regular service stops. And they identified a bathroom as a place to take cover if winds get extreme.

"I'm definitely getting a little bit more scared, I have to say," Ayers said.

Janelle Frost and Tracy Dunn told CNN they were staying put in Panama City Beach. They said they wanted to stay to help those who couldn't afford to leave, such as retirees.

"There's so many people that live around where we're at, and we wanted to make sure they're OK," Frost said.


Rain just one of several threats


A hurricane warning remains in place from the Alabama-Florida border to the Suwannee River in Florida.

Meanwhile, tropical storm warnings were in effect for parts of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. Storm surge warnings were in place along the Florida and Alabama coasts.

Up to 12 inches of rain could fall in Florida's Panhandle and Big Bend areas, as well as southeastern Alabama and southern Georgia. Some parts of the Carolinas and southern Virginia, recently deluged by Hurricane Florence, could see up to 6 inches, the hurricane center said.

Michael's rain and destructive winds aren't its only serious threats.

Life-threatening storm surges could slam the Florida Gulf Coast, with the deadliest of possibly 9 to 14 feet expected near the eyewall and to the east — perhaps between Tyndall Air Force Base and the Aucilla River.


Effect of climate change


Michael's strength may reflect the effect of climate change on storms. The planet has warmed significantly over the past several decades, causing changes in the environment.

Human-caused greenhouse gases in the atmosphere create an energy imbalance, with more than 90% of remaining heat trapped by the gases going into the oceans, according to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association. There's evidence of higher sea surface temperature and atmospheric moisture, experts say.

While we might not get more storms in a warmer climate, most studies show storms will get stronger and produce more rain. Storm surge is worse now than it was 100 years ago, thanks to the rise in sea levels.

According to Climate Central, a scientific research organization, the coming decades are expected to bring hurricanes that intensify more rapidly, should there be no change in the rate of greenhouse gas emissions.

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