PANAMA CITY: Hurricane Michael has killed one person in northern Florida, an official in Gadsden County west of the state capital Tallahassee told AFP, giving the first confirmed death from the powerful storm.
The hurricane roared ashore on Wednesday (Oct 10), flooding homes and streets and toppling trees and power lines in the Gulf of Mexico beachfront town where it made landfall as a raging Category 4 storm.
There is "one hurricane-related fatality," said Olivia Smith, public information officer for the Gadsden County Board of County Commissioners, adding that the incident was "debris-related. There was a tree involved."
She could not say what time the death occurred or give any details about the victim.
Smith said the situation was dangerous even for emergency personnel.
"We've been very cautious with sending our first responders out right now," she said.
Florida officials said Michael, packing winds of 250 kmh, was the most powerful storm to hit the southern US state in more than a century.
Michael made landfall around 1pm Eastern time (1700 GMT) near Mexico Beach, a resort town about 32km southeast of Panama City on the Florida Panhandle, the National Hurricane Centre (NHC) said.
Pictures and video from Mexico Beach, a community of about 1,000 people, showed scenes of devastation with houses floating in flooded streets, some ripped from their foundations and missing roofs.
Roads were filled with piles of floating debris.
Panama City looked like a war zone after being battered for nearly three hours by strong winds and heavy rains. Roads were virtually impassable and trees, satellite dishes and traffic lights lay in the streets.
"Hurricane Michael is forecast to be the most destructive storm to hit the Florida Panhandle in a century," Governor Rick Scott said.
Briefing President Donald Trump at the White House, top emergency management official Brock Long said Michael was the most intense hurricane to strike the area since 1851.
"Along our coast, communities are going to see unimaginable devastation," Governor Rick Scott said.
Briefing President Donald Trump at the White House, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) chief Brock Long said Michael was the most intense hurricane to strike the Florida Panhandle since 1851.
"Along our coast, communities are going to see unimaginable devastation," Scott said, with storm surge posing the greatest danger.
"Water will come miles in shore and could easily rise over the roofs of houses," he said.
"Those who stick around to experience storm surge don't typically live to tell about it unfortunately," said FEMA's Long.
Hundreds of thousands of people were ordered to evacuate their homes and the governor told residents who had not done so to "hunker down and be careful."
There were no immediate reports of casualties but officials were fearing the worst.
"This is, unfortunately, a historical and incredibly dangerous and life-threatening situation," said Ken Graham, director of the Miami-based NHC. "It's going to be incredibly catastrophic."
JUST SHY OF CATEGORY 5
General Terrence O'Shaughnessy, commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command, said some Florida residents may have been surprised by the rapid growth of the storm.
"It really started as a tropical storm, and then it went to Category 1, then it was Category 2 and before you know it, it was Category 4," O'Shaughnessy said.
"Where that becomes a factor is with the evacuation of some of the local populations," he said. "We haven't seen as robust of an evacuation response from the civilian population that we have seen in other storms."
About four hours after the hurricane made landfall, the eye of the storm was leaving the Florida Panhandle and approaching southeastern Alabama and southwest Georgia, the NHC said.
It said Michael was now a Category 3 storm with winds abating but still extremely dangerous at 205 kilometres per hour.
"Michael should weaken as it crosses the southeastern United States through Thursday," the NHC said.
Long, the head of FEMA, said many Florida buildings were not built to withstand a storm above the strength of a Category 3 hurricane on the five-level Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale.
As it came ashore, Michael was just shy of a Category 5 - defined as a storm packing wind speeds of 157 mph or above.
An estimated 375,000 people in more than 20 counties were ordered or advised to evacuate.
The National Weather Service office in the state capital Tallahassee issued a dramatic appeal for people to comply with evacuation orders.
"Hurricane Michael is an unprecedented event and cannot be compared to any of our previous events. Do not risk your life, leave NOW if you were told to do so," it said.
The NWS said it had found no record of any previous Category 4 hurricanes that made landfall in the Panhandle or the "Big Bend" coastal region.
"This situation has NEVER happened before," it said on Twitter.
Trump issued an emergency declaration for Florida, freeing up federal funds for relief operations and providing the assistance of FEMA, which has more than 3,000 people on the ground.
State officials issued disaster declarations in Alabama and Georgia and the storm is also expected to bring heavy rainfall to North and South Carolina.
The Carolinas are still recovering from Hurricane Florence, which left dozens dead and is estimated to have caused billions of dollars in damage last month.
It made landfall on the coast as a Category 1 hurricane on Sep 14 and drenched some parts of the state with 101 centimetres of rain.
Last year saw a string of catastrophic storms batter the western Atlantic - including Irma, Maria and Harvey, which caused a record-equaling US$125 billion in damage when it flooded the Houston metropolitan area.
Scientists have long warned that global warming will make storms more destructive, and some say the evidence for this may already be visible.