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As people in the Florida Panhandle prepared for the still-strengthening, potentially history-making Category 4 Hurricane Michael to make landfall Wednesday, officials made it clear to those who stayed behind along the wind-and-rain-pummeled coast: it is now too late to leave.
“The time for evacuating along the coast has come and gone. First responders will not be able to come out in the middle of the storm. If you chose to stay in an evacuation zone, you must SEEK REFUGE IMMEDIATELY,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott said in a tweet.
“We expect conditions across the Panhandle to begin deteriorating rapidly. Now the storm is here. It is not safe to travel across the Panhandle,” he added during a Wednesday morning news conference.
The latest on the storm:
- More than 6,000 customers in Florida are without power.
- More than 375,000 Florida residents are under evacuation orders.
- The storm is packing maximum sustained winds of 145 MPH and could strengthen by landfall Wednesday afternoon.
- The storm is located 60 miles south-southwest of Panama City, Florida, and 65 miles west-southwest of Apalachicola as of 11 a.m. ET
Michael is set to be the first storm of its magnitude to hit the panhandle in more than 150 years.
“The historical record, going back to 1851, finds no Category 4 hurricane ever hitting the Florida panhandle,” National Hurricane Center Meteorologist Dennis Feltgen wrote in a Facebook post Wednesday.
Although the storm wasn’t forecast to make landfall until Wednesday afternoon, the National Hurricane Center warned in the morning that heavy rainfall, “life-threatening” storm surge and hurricane force winds were “imminent.” Michael’s top sustained winds had hit 145 mph, and the storm could still strengthen, the center said.
Those winds would extend from the eye of the storm by 45 miles, the Hurricane Center said, and tropical storm-force winds could extend up to 185 miles outward.
Storm surge would be the most catastrophic on the Florida coast at nine to 14 feet. “The water will come miles inshore and can easily rise over the roofs of houses,” Scott said, adding that even 2 feet of storm surge could be deadly.
With the storm 90 miles off the coast of Panama City and Apalachicola, more than 375,000 residents in dozens of Florida counties were under evacuation orders Wednesday, but FEMA administrator Brock Long said some residents don’t have time to flee.
“If you failed to heed a warning for any reason, your goal should be to elevate as high as you can and get into a facility that you think can withstand the winds at this point and hope for the best,” Long said.
Long warned on Wednesday morning that the window of time for people still deciding if they would evacuate was closing.
“This is the final call for anybody that needs to get out, try to do so,” Long said. “Those who stick around to experience storm surge don’t typically live to tell about it, unfortunately.”
But for many, the opportunity to evacuate had passed.
A Weather Channel crew even tried to leave their base in Apalachicola, but couldn’t because storm conditions made it impossible to drive, meteorologist Mike Bettes said on Twitter.
The sheriff in Panama City’s Bay County issued a shelter-in-place order early Wednesday, and the county’s Department of Emergency Services said officers could no longer respond to calls.
“Life-threatening conditions are beginning to occur in Bay County. It is now time to shelter in place. Go inside, stay inside,” said a tweet from the office.
“It’s about too late to find shelters with #Michael moving in right now. The best thing to do is find shelter in your own place away from any windows,” The National Weather Service in Tallahassee, about 20 miles inland, echoed.
Officials also shut down the Hathaway Bridge on Wednesday, which connects Panama City and Panama City Beach, and is a main route in and out of the cities.
Torrential rains, destructive winds and possible tornadoes would also extend well inland. Parts of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and the Carolinas would also likely be hard-hit. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency for 92 counties.
In North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper issued a state of emergency ahead of Michael, according to NBC News affiliate WCNC. Tropical storm warnings and storm surge watches were issued for parts of the coast of North Carolina, according to NOAA. The state was pummeled last month by Hurricane Florence.
Peter Macias, of the Red Cross, said that overnight approximately 4,000 people entered nearly 70 evacuation centers across the Florida panhandle and into Alabama.
On Tuesday, President Donald Trump signed the emergency declaration requested by Scott for 35 Florida counties. Scott said Wednesday morning he updated the president on the storm, and Trump offered any necessary resources “as we prepare to respond to this massive and catastrophic storm.”
Government offices will close in those 35 counties, and while Tuesday was the deadline for Floridians to register to vote, residents will be allowed to register on the day those offices reopen, according to a statement from the Florida secretary of state. The Florida Democratic Party filed a lawsuit Tuesday saying that the one-day extension was insufficient and confusing.