As it moved inland over Georgia on track to hammer some parts of South and North Carolina that haven't yet recovered from Hurricane Florence, Hurricane Michael was downgraded to a tropical storm Wednesday night. It's expected to exit the Continent on Friday, leaving a more than 200-mile long trail of devastation and what's expected to be roughly $20 billion in damages as it tears through the southeastern US. Already, 2 deaths have been confirmed, and it's believed that more will come. During the latest update, the storm was 30 miles west of Augusta, Georgia and is headed into South Carolina.
(Courtesy of Accuweather)
Despite the downgrades, Michael has cemented its status as the third most powerful storm to ever make landfall in the Continental US. Strong winds and torrential rains continued to batter Georgia overnight and have spread to South Carolina as well. According to Accuweather, winds reached 60 mph across Georgia overnight, and speeds were expected across the Carolinas over the next 24 hours.
More than 700,000 homes and businesses had lost power in Florida, Alabama and Georgia early on Thursday. The governors of North and South Carolina warned about coming heavy rain and storm-force winds as Michael moved north along the Atlantic seaboard. The NHC warned that the storm could cause life-threatening flash flooding on Thursday and Friday across the Carolinas, Georgia and as far away as Virginia.
To provide an update on the status of disaster relief, the head of the NHC will give a news conference at 8:30 am ET:
As residents prepare themselves for the monumental task of rebuilding after the storm reduced thousands of homes to splinters, scientists and first responders are reflecting on how Michael intensified from a tropical storm with negligible expected impact on Saturday to a borderline Category 5 storm that was among the most powerful to ever come ashore in the US - and certainly the most powerful storm to ever hit the Florida panhandle since record-keeping began. One Panama City resident who spoke with the New York Times put it best.
"When they started a couple of days ago and said it was going to be a Category 1, it was, like, 'Cat 1, no big deal,'" Laurie Hamm said at the Panama City hotel where she had taken refuge a few miles from her townhouse nearer the beach. "When they said Cat 2, it was like, 'Oh, maybe we’d better pay attention.' And when they said Cat 3, it was like, 'Oh, Lord'".
In Florida alone, 6,700 people were in 54 shelters. The National Guard activated 3,500 troops, and the authorities said 1.5 million meals were expected to be distributed along with one million gallons of water. Much of the area in the storm's projected path was under a tropical storm warning.
Trump promised to be "totally focused" on the storm despite appearing at a campaign rally in Philadelphia, saying he would send his "unwavering love and support" and "sparing no effort, no expense, no resource to help these great fellow citizens of ours who are going through a tough time right now."
Some areas in Michael's path are still under a tornado watch, elevating the risks to lives and property.
Sometimes, hurricanes can spawn tornadoes as they move over land and Michael isn't an exception.
"With the projected path of Michael, the greatest risk for brief, spin-up tornadoes is near the storm center and south and east of the track of the storm," AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Dan Pydynowski said.
Since Michael is hitting parts of South Carolina that weren't heavily battered by Florence, experts believe it could take a few days for waters to crest.
As reporters made their way outdoors for the first time since the storm made landfall, they shared stories from residents of places along the panhandle coast like Mexico Beach. One woman who spoke with the NYT described how the storm had destroyed rows of homes, littering streets with debris for miles around and sending boats careening down flooded streets. In one neighborhood where there once were condos, nothing remained. At one area along the coast of the Florida panhandle, a storm surge of 8 feet was recorded.
"You can’t drive a car anywhere, you can’t do anything because it’s littered with houses, pieces of houses," said Patricia Mulligan, who rode out the storm with her family in a condo in Mexico Beach, a town of mom-and-pop shops and sport-fishing businesses about 35 miles southeast of Panama City. Outside, she said in a phone interview, she could see remnants of people’s lives strewn about: refrigerators, a beanbag chair, a washing machine, a kayak and a dresser.
Her brother, she said, lost a condo along the beach, and the other nearby units were also destroyed. "They’re not there," she said. "It’s gone."
Another woman who spoke with CNN said Mexico Beach looked like "a nightmare."
"It feels like a nightmare," Linda Albrecht, a councilwoman in Mexico Beach, Florida, said of the catastrophic damage in her town. "Somebody needs to come up and shake you and wake you up."
But in what was perhaps the most telling sign of Michael's intensity, the New York Post reported that 18 Waffle House restaurants in the storm's strike zone would close for the storm - something that only happens during the most acute natural disasters.
Indeed, Waffle House's disaster preparedness strategies are so effective that FEMA unofficially uses Waffle House closures as a barometer for a disaster's intensity.
The "Waffle House Index" has three color-coded levels: Green means the restaurant is open and serving a full menu; yellow indicates the menu has been scaled back and there may be water but no power; and red indicates the restaurant is completely shut down and the area is likely in need of serious assistance.
Michael will be with us for another day or two. It's not expected to move offshore until Friday, having swept over much of Georgia as a hurricane and then North and South Carolina as a tropical storm.