Hurricane Michael roared ashore on Wednesday afternoon, making landfall after intensifying into a powerful Category 4 storm and then battering the region for hours.
Michael is the strongest hurricane on record to strike the area, and it has been lashing the coastline with intense winds and rains, which forecasters say could lead to "potentially catastrophic" consequences.
It continued to rumble inland across the Florida Panhandle on Wednesday afternoon and was east of Panama City, the National Hurricane Center said.
"Dangerous storm surge continues along the coast of the Florida Panhandle," the center said, with a station in Apalachicola registering more than 7.7 feet of inundation. Wind gusts were still battering the area, with some reported as high as 119 mph in the region.
The storm's impact was felt far and wide across the region, with some areas still awaiting the storm's bands. Nearly 30,000 people were without power in Florida by midday, officials said, a number that was expected to keep climbing. Bridges were shuttered, roads closed and water levels rising.
The hurricane came ashore about 1:40 p.m. Wednesday, just northwest of Mexico Beach, Florida, not far from Panama City, as "an extremely dangerous" Category 4 storm, according to the National Hurricane Center.
The most devastating conditions were occurring in the eyewall across the Florida Panhandle's coastline on Wednesday, but severe hurricane impacts are expected to extend inland as Michael keeps moving north.
Five states have declared states of emergency due to Hurricane Michael: Florida, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina, all of which declared emergencies in some or all of their counties. In his order, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, R, noted that his state is still dealing with floodwaters left behind by Hurricane Florence, which tore through the Carolinas last month. McMaster said that given the lingering floodwaters, the looming storm poses "a significant threat" to South Carolina.
In a bulletin late Wednesday morning, the National Hurricane Center said the storm's maximum sustained winds had increased to nearly 150 mph with some stronger gusts. Water levels were rising along the Florida Panhandle, with more than 5 feet of inundation reported at a water level station in Apalachicola.
The weather service said that radar suggests winds topping 130 mph were moving ashore, and it included in its warning late Wednesday morning a blunt and all-caps message: "THIS IS AN EXTREMELY DANGEROUS AND LIFE-THREATENING SITUATION!"
In Tallahassee, rain had been steadily increasing all morning, with more frequent downpours coming as Hurricane Michael inches closer.
Few motorists were seen on the streets of Florida's capital city, and virtually no businesses are open. Tallahassee's abundant live oaks, which line many residential streets, remain in good condition before noon, but residents warn they are vulnerable to high winds once the soil becomes soaked.
In one semirural community, houses were boarded up and horses sheltered in barns and beneath trees in the steady rain.
As tropical storm conditions spread across the Florida Panhandle, bridges began to close throughout the region and emergency response services were slowed and halted.
First responders were urging residents to stay put and ride out the storm as winds peaked above 50 mph in some portions of the region and Hurricane Michael continued to move up toward Bay County.
"We just urge everyone to hunker down and ride it out. It's going to be pretty intense," Brad Monroe, deputy chief of emergency services in Bay County said during a morning briefing from the county's emergency operations center. "We are beginning to see the outer edge of the high speed winds … Anyone that is sheltered in place needs to stay there."
He said preparations are being made for post-storm recovery efforts, but as of Wednesday morning the condition were already too dangerous for emergency personnel to be out.
"First responders are ready to go as soon as conditions allow," an emotional Monroe said during the morning briefing. "It's just simply too dangerous to send our people out."
Heavy rains were already inundating parts of the region, and flooding was already reported in waterfront areas.
In North Carolina, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper declared an emergency in his state ahead of the expected arrival of Hurricane Michael.
Cooper's announcement came after emergencies were declared in Florida, Alabama and Georgia as Michael, a powerful Category 4 storm, churned closer to the Southeast. Cooper said 150 National Guard troops would report on Wednesday afternoon and warned that the heaviest rains were expected in his state on Thursday.
Federal officials said they are in position and prepared to help the Southeast respond to Hurricane Michael, which they described as a particularly dangerous system.
"Unfortunately, Hurricane Michael is a hurricane of the worst kind," FEMA Administrator William "Brock" Long said at a news briefing Wednesday morning.
Long was grim in discussing the potential impact from Michael, which intensified Tuesday and Wednesday into a Category 4 hurricane, a major storm with the potential to wreak havoc.
"Major hurricanes cause large losses of life and the most amount of destruction that hurricanes can bring forward," he said.
Long warned about the "devastating storm surge" that would likely push through that region along with punishing winds. Long also extended his warning to other parts of the Southeast, saying this could be the worst storm to hit southwest and central Georgia in "many, many decades - and maybe ever.
"The citizens in Georgia need to wake up and pay attention," he said. Beyond that, Long said, the storm could bring unwelcome rainfall to parts of the Carolinas still recovering from the deadly flooding.
"It's going to be a major hit," Long said of the storm's expected impact across the region.
Republican Gov. Rick Scott on Wednesday urged anyone in the storm's path to seek shelter before the most damaging weather arrived.
"This is the worst storm that our Florida Panhandle has seen in a century," he said at a news briefing. "Hurricane Michael is upon us and now is the time to seek refuge."
Scott warned about the "unimaginable devastation" that could spread across the coastal regions, warning residents to take the storm's destructive capabilities seriously.
"It's going to be horrible," he said.
He said more than 3,500 Florida National Guard members had been activated, along with waves of other first responders and officials preparing to respond to both the storm and its aftermath.
Residents and officials alike have said they were surprised by how quickly the storm came together, particularly compared to the much slower approach of recent hurricanes like Irma last year and Florence last month in the Carolinas. "This thing happened fast," Scott said.
Early Wednesday, Panama City Beach was desolate. The tourists had cut their vacations short. Most hotels had evacuated. The restaurants and shops all across the waterfront community were closed.
But not everyone was gone. Some residents of this popular beach town in northwest Florida, were staying put, ignoring the pleas from officials to evacuate and dismissing the threat of an approaching Category 4 storm. At Buster's Beer & Bait, one of the last bars still open Tuesday night, the locals had one spirited gathering recounting stories from past hurricanes and planning how they would use their boats, kayaks and canoes to help with any search and rescue efforts. They took turns to singing the wood covering the bar's windows already marked with "Rock Me Hurricane 2018."
"Welcome to the Hurricane party," some said when new customers entered the bar. Across the way, the waves grew higher and louder. By morning, rain was steady and winds were picking up. Tyler and Heather Butler said they didn't realize the storm would be serious until Monday, and decided to hunker down at their Georgette Street home, just two miles from the beach. Their neighbors were also staying, they said.
"There won't be any power, no WiFi. We will play board games. We will be able to get time together," said Tyler Butler, 33. "It will be a good lesson for the kids to be appreciative of the things they have - power, water, air conditioning. In a couple of days they will look back and say, 'we made it through.' It will be a bonding time."
As Michael gained strength and bore down on the Florida Panhandle, people in the storm's path hurried to stack sandbags, fill gas tanks and stock up on bottled water in the final hours before the arrival of a system many said took them by surprise.
"It came on so quickly," said Larry Messinger, a Red Cross coordinator at a shelter in Panama City. "A week ago, I don't think anyone in this area was paying attention, and all of a sudden, there is a hurricane."
President Donald Trump said he may head to the Southeast next week to survey hurricane damage, possibly on Sunday or Monday.
Trump spoke in the Oval Office alongside FEMA chief William "Brock" Long, hours before a scheduled rally the president has planned in Pennsylvania later Wednesday night. Trump said he will "probably" still go to the rally.
"It's like a big tornado, a massive tornado," Trump said of the storm, which he said "grew into a monster."
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Berman reported from Washington, Lazo from Panama City. The Washington Post's Patricia Sullivan in Tallahassee, Carmen Sisson in Pensacola, Florida, and Kevin Begos in Apalachicola, Florida, contributed to this report.