TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Gov. Rick Scott said Wednesday morning that time had run out for people in coastal areas who debated whether to evacuate ahead of Hurricane Michael, as the powerful Category 4 storm was poised to cause massive damage in the Panhandle.
“It’s too late to get out,” Scott said during an appearance on the Weather Channel. “If you’re in a coastal community, you’ve got to hunker down. You’ve got to do everything you can to keep your family safe.”
At 10 a.m. Eastern time, Michael, with maximum sustained winds of 145 mph, was about 65 miles south-southwest of Panama City, moving north at 13 mph. It barreled ashore about 1 p.m. near Mexico Beach with winds at 155 mph.
“It’s going to get worse pretty fast here,” said Scott, before making similar comments in appearances on “Fox & Friends” and “CBS This Morning.”
A hurricane warning remained in effect from the Alabama state line to the Suwannee River in Dixie County for what could be the most destructive hurricane in the Panhandle in a century.
An Extreme Wind Warning was issued for Hurricane Michael's eyewall about 11:45 a.m. Wednesday. The warning was in effect until 2:15 p.m. for Gulf County, Southern Bay County and Southwestern Franklin County. Residents were urged to take cover and treat the winds like an approaching tornado.
A shelter-in-place order was issued just after 7 a.m. Wednesday by the Bay County Sheriff's Office. The Sheriff's Office said deputies will continue to respond to calls for service, but that will change as dangerous winds intensify. Deputies urged residents to stay off the roads.
Michael is upon us, it is time to seek refuge. Once you are sheltered, STAY PUT. 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.— Rick Scott (@SenRickScott) October 10, 2018
The storm, which is expected to speed through the Panhandle before moving into the Atlanta area and the Carolinas, rapidly grew over the weekend, and Scott said many people made the decision not to evacuate early, when the forecast had the system reaching 100 mph.
Conditions deteriorated by the minute Wednesday morning in Panama City Beach as Michael made its final approach. Storm surge is now a factor, with the water reaching the dunes and wiping out some structures that were in the sand.
By 10 a.m., the waves were starting to touch the fishing pier, a popular tourist attraction that locals said is supposed to be hurricane proof.
The roads were empty, save for Panama City Beach police officers in pickup trucks and SUVs and a few national media crews. Everyone else was either sheltering in place in the high-rise beachfront condos or on the mainland, out of the worst flood zones.
The normally busy beach getaway with eerily quiet Tuesday night, as residents and vacationers for the most part heeded the warnings of officials to leave after a mandatory evacuation order.
Wind gusts picked up, causing dumpsters to flap and trees to start to bend.
Rain was falling steadily, at times accompanied by wind gusts, and it was hard to see 50 feet away.
Deputies said they have never seen a storm this strong make a direct hit on the area. They believe the main roads, like Front Beach Road and Thomas Drive, could be under 5 to 6 feet of water before it's over. Many of the main passageways will be impassable.
Hotels were closed, and there were a few holdouts in condos, which were being guarded by 24-hour security. Earlier Wednesday morning, maintenance crews shut down the elevators at a 30-story complex, the tallest in the Panhandle.
People expected to lose electricity and potentially water before noon and were planning for it to be out for several days, if not longer.
Florida Emergency Management Director Wes Maul said the state is prepared for search-and-rescue operations, as well as bringing food and medical supplies into areas, as there will be “devastating impacts.”
“Human needs, there’s going to be a lot,” Maul said. “Look at what is on the list: medical, water, food, shelter, emergency fuel. The time for opening shelters is over.”
Maul on Monday expressed criticism in an email that local officials were not sufficiently preparing for the storm, noting that some safety operations weren’t scheduled to begin until Tuesday afternoon.
Fifty-four shelters were open across the Panhandle and Big Bend, housing nearly 6,000 people as of 9 a.m. Wednesday, according to the state Division of Emergency Management.
“It’s been frustrating,” Scott said while on CBS. “I’ve spent the last few days traveling the coast to get people to evacuate. Those that have decided not to evacuate, I’m very concerned about their safety.”
Scott said it is unknown how many did not leave, but he noted that while he was in Franklin County on Tuesday the sheriff had been unable to convince at least 50 people who were remaining in island homes.
Besides heavy rains and strong winds, the system is expected to create flash flooding and life-threatening storm surges across the Panhandle and Big Bend region.
“You’re not going to survive 12 feet, 13 feet of storm surge, you’re not going to survive it,” Scott said. “If you’re in a one-story house, and the storm surge is there, I don’t know how you’re going to survive that.”
Scott said the state is ready to respond once the storm passes, with 3,500 members of the Florida National Guard activated and more than 1,000 state forestry and wildlife officers prepared for search-and-rescue operations.
Utility crews from Gulf Power, Duke Energy Florida, Florida Power & Light and public utilities have lined up more than 19,000 workers from their own crews and through mutual-aid agreements with companies across the South and Midwest. Duke said Tuesday night, it expected 100,000 to 200,000 customers to lose power.
Appearing before the media Wednesday morning in the State Emergency Operations Center, Scott said fuel is moving where needed and no “widespread” gas outages had been reported.
The AAA Auto Group has said Michael isn’t expected to cause a “significant” spike in pump prices as its path remains east of most energy infrastructure such as oil rigs and refineries.
The U.S. Coast Guard has suspended vessel operations at the Port of Panama City and Port of Pensacola.
Scott lifted tolls across the Panhandle to help with mandatory evacuations. Such evacuations were ordered for coastal and low-lying areas of Bay, Dixie, Franklin, Gulf, Jackson, Levy, Okaloosa, Wakulla and Walton counties. Voluntary evacuation orders have been issued for areas of Calhoun, Gadsden, Hernando, Jefferson, Leon, Liberty, Pasco, Santa Rosa and Taylor counties, according to the state Division of Emergency Management website.
Scott said he talked Wednesday morning to President Donald Trump, who signed a pre-landfall emergency declaration Tuesday that ensures federal resources are available before and after the storm in the 35 counties where Scott declared a state of emergency.
Disaster fund activated for recovery
With powerful Hurricane Michael making landfall Wednesday in the Panhandle, Gov. Rick Scott activated the Florida Disaster Fund to help with the aftermath. Administered by the Volunteer Florida Foundation, the fund receives donations that go to disaster-relief efforts.
“As the state’s official fund for disaster response and recovery, the Florida Disaster Fund is an excellent way for the private sector and individuals to financially support Floridians affected by Hurricane Michael,” David Mica Jr., CEO of Volunteer Florida, said in a prepared statement.
Duke Energy, which provides electricity in large parts of the eastern Panhandle and the Big Bend, has donated $50,000 to the fund to help with Michael recovery efforts, Scott’s office said in a news release.
For more information, the fund’s website is www.FloridaDisasterFund.org.