The stunning scope of Hurricane Michael’s deadly rampage started coming into focus Thursday, as dawn in Panama City, Florida revealed a sprawling mess of almost unimaginable devastation wrought by the third-most powerful hurricane in recorded history to lash the U.S. mainland.
Michael is now a tropical storm and, as of Thursday afternoon, was pushing its way across South Carolina — while also lashing North Carolina and Virginia with strong winds and heavy rains amid a tornado threat.
Hurricane Michael made landfall around 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, just north of Mexico Beach, as a Category 4 storm with 155 mph sustained winds — just 1 mph below the threshold for a Category 5 designation. The storm blasted the Florida Panhandle and southwest Georgia with wicked winds and killed at least six people.
In Panama City, located just west of where the monster storm made landfall, drone video taken by storm chaser Brett Adair shows how the winds and rain ravaged a middle school.
Jinks Middle School took such a hit from the hurricane that Adair was able to fly the drone right through the school’s gym, where Michael’s fierce gusts peeled back the roof and collapsed walls. Not that everything was ripped apart: Even with debris lining the basketball court, a volleyball net remained taut and in place, awaiting the next match.
There were at least 5 confirmed fatalities in Bay County alone, a Panama City Police source told Fox News. Authorities are still going house-to-house and are asking people to stay out of the city because roads are blocked, and there is no power or phone service. The law enforcement source, who called the situation “catastrophic,” said that evacuess should remain where they are and not come back for the time being.
Elsewhere in Panama City, downed power lines, uprooted trees and buildings with tops peeled open like soup cans littered the landscape. As of Thursday afternoon, more than 300,00 customers were without power in Florida and nearly 280,000 customers in the dark in Georgia.
Emergency management officials are urging residents to stay off the streets until utility crews and other service providers finish clearing away hazardous obstacles.
Vance Beu, who was staying at an apartment complex with his mother, told the Associated Press the storm had “super high-pitched” roar and sounded like “a jet engine was coming.”
“It was terrifying, honestly. There was a lot of noise. We thought the windows were going to break at any time,” Beu said.
Trees lay strewn in Panama City Beach, Fla. after Hurricane Michael bore through the area.
Extreme winds from Hurricane Michael gutted roofs and facades of beachfront condominiums in Panama City Beach, Fla., sending debris to the streets below.
Rescue workers are set to spend Thursday picking carefully through the wreckage in neighborhoods where people did not evacuate before Michael slammed the area. FEMA administrator Brock Long told “FOX & Friends” on Thursday that crews were only able to do “limited” search and rescue operations before nightfall.
“We are worried about the damage once we see sunrise,” he said.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott said at a briefing on Thursday morning that so many families across the region have “lost everything.”
“This morning, Florida’s Gulf Coast, Panhandle and Big Bend are waking up to unimaginable destruction,” Scott said. “This hurricane was an absolute monster.”
The top focus for officials on Thursday is search and rescue, including a survey of the hardest-hit areas.
“Homes are gone. Businesses are gone. Roads and infrastructure along the storm’s path have been destroyed,” the governor said.
Some of the worst damage was in Mexico Beach, where Michael crashed ashore and brought a storm surge of 9 feet. Entire blocks of homes near the beach were obliterated, leaving nothing but concrete slabs in the sand. Rows and rows of other homes were reduced to piles of splintered debris or were crumpled and slumped at odd angles.
The mayor of Mexico Beach told Fox News that around 280 people had refused to leave ahead of the hurricane despite a mandatory evacuation order. A National Guard team got into Mexico Beach and found 20 survivors overnight, and more crews were pushing into the area by afternoon, with the fate of many residents unknown.
Besides the death’s in Bay County, a Florida man killed by a tree that crashed through his roof and an 11-year-old Georgia girl who died when a car port rammed the family’s mobile home.
At Tyndall Air Force Base, which took a direct hit from Michael, base officials said Thursday that they have found “widespread catastrophic damage” during an initial assessment of the facility.
Earlier this week, more than 50 F-22 stealth fighter jets were evacuated along with base personnel as the massive storm approached. As of Thursday, recovery teams conducted an initial assessment of portions of base housing and found “widespread roof damage” to nearly every home.
“At this point, Tyndall residents and evacuated personnel should remain at their safe location,” Col. Brian Laidlaw, 325th Fighter Wing commander, said in a statement. “We are actively developing plans to reunite families and plan to provide safe passage back to base housing.”
Rick Reichmuth, Fox News’ chief meteorologist, said Michael was the fourth-most powerful storm to make landfall in the U.S. when measuring by wind, and the third-most powerful in terms of pressure, at 919 mb. Michael was the first storm of its magnitude to make landfall in the Panhandle since record-keeping there began in 1851.
Fox News’ Rick Leventhal and Jonathan Serrie in Panama City Beach, Fox News’ Lucas Tomlinson, Stephen Sorace and The Associated Press contributed to this report.