Hurricane Michael roared closer to the Florida Panhandle on Wednesday after intensifying into a Category 4 storm, gaining strength just hours before it was poised to make landfall in the afternoon as the strongest hurricane on record to strike the region.
The storm has already begun lashing the Gulf Coast with tropical-storm conditions, and it threatens to be "potentially catastrophic," according to the National Hurricane Center.
National Weather Service forecasters issued blunt warnings about Hurricane Michael: It is already hitting Florida, and it is only getting stronger.
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 National Weather Service in Tallahassee, Florida's capital, issued an "extreme wind warning" for parts of Gulf, Bay and Franklin counties in northwestern part of the state. The three counties, which stretch along the Panhandle from the area around Panama City to an area south of Tallahassee, are already feeling the impact from Hurricane Michael's lashing rain and wind. The extreme wind warning is in effect until 2:15 p.m., the alert said.
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 has 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.
Hurricane Michael has already begun lashing northwestern Florida, and 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.
With Michael's outer bands lashing northwest Florida, 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 approved an emergency declaration in Florida on Tuesday. In remarks at the White House, he said officials were "very well prepared" for the storm, which he said was "a big one - much bigger than they anticipated a week ago."
On the ground in northwest Florida, preparations quickly unfolded before the storm arrived. Sandbags were distributed across the region, while residents hunkering down sought to gather supplies, though some encountered gas stations already sucked dry and grocery stores picked clean of bottled water.
- - -
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.