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Friday, February 23, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Hurricane Michael Slams Florida Panhandle, Batters Georgia

Hundreds of thousands of Florida residents faced the long road to recovery on Thursday, one day after Hurricane Michael devastated parts of the state's panhandle region.

(CN) - Hundreds of thousands of Florida residents faced the long road to recovery on Thursday, one day after Hurricane Michael devastated parts of the state's panhandle region.

From Panama City to the little fishing village of Port St. Joe, the Category 4 storm ripped apart homes and washed businesses out to sea. The hurricane, the most powerful to hit the Panhandle on record, claimed one man's life in Gadsden County when a tree fell on his home. A child in Georgia was also killed, according to the Associated Press. The state does not yet have an accurate count of injuries.

Utilities in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and Alabama reported that more than 932,000 customers were without power in the wake of the hurricane.

State officials in Florida estimate 6,700 people stayed at 54 shelters throughout the region. Many counties instituted a curfew last night and debris will prevent many residents from returning to their homes this morning. An 80-mile stretch of Interstate 10, which runs the length of the Panhandle, is closed due to debris.

Hurricane Michael, now a tropical storm, moved up through Georgia and will pass through the Carolinas today. The governors of the states already declared states of emergency.

Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency for 35 Florida counties earlier in the week. He activated 3,500 members of the Florida National Guard and about 1,000 search-and-rescue team personnel.

He also activated the Florida Disaster Fund, a private charity sanctioned by the state to provide relief to those affected by storms.

"I’m urging residents of impacted areas to continue to stay off the roads and listen to your local authorities so that our first responders and utility crews can do their jobs," Scott tweeted early Thursday morning. "We’re working diligently to get to everyone as quickly as we can."

State officials said they have truckloads of read to eat meals and a million gallons of water read for distribution.

Schools, colleges and universities are closed for the rest of the week, including Florida State University in Tallahassee. The capital city was largely spared with minimal tree debris in the roads and about a quarter of residents without power.

The Florida Supreme Court ceased operations for the rest of the week along with courts in the most affected areas, such as Bay, Calhoun, Gulf, Washington and Jackson counties.

Major debris on roads and washed out bridges will prevent many Panhandle residents of assessing the damage to homes and property today. The carnage may also hinder emergency crews checking on those who did not evacuate.

Still, photos and videos trickled in through social media showing massive devastation in small towns like Mexico Beach and Port St. Joe.

In Mexico Beach, where Hurricane Michael came ashore with winds of 155 mph and an 8-foot storm surge, only the roofs of homes were visible. Tyndall Air Force Base is severely damaged, according to the Northwest Florida Daily News.

Homes and businesses in Panama City, a popular spring break destination, are missing roofs and large pine trees litter the roads. The storm blew out the windows of a four-story bank and ripped open large apartment buildings.

Popular beach haunts along Highway 98 are no more. Toucan's, a popular three-story wooden bar and grill, was completely destroyed and the debris washed back out to sea.

Much to the chagrin of some Floridians, Hurricane Michael did not slow the nonstop political ads hitting airwaves from the Panhandle to Miami. Republican Ron DeSantis, a former congressman, aired two ads attacking his gubernatorial challenger, Democrat Andrew Gillum, for not accepting help from utility companies during Hurricane Irma. The claim is false, according to independent fact-checking website Politifact.

Florida Democrats also went on the offensive, filing a federal lawsuit against Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner in a bid to extend the state's voter registration deadline, which was Tuesday.

"Florida voters, however, face a daunting and, indeed, life-threatening obstacle to registering to vote in the form of Hurricane Michael," the Florida Democratic Party said in its complaint.

In southwest Georgia, an 11-year-old girl awas killed when a carport was picked up by the strong winds from the storm and thrown into her home

Seminole County Emergency Management Agency director Travis Brooks said one of the carport's legs punctured the roof of the home and hit the in the head.

Brooks said he wasn't able to get out much overnight to fully assess the damage in the county, because downed power lines and trees made roads impassable. But he said the sheriff told him it looked like a bomb had gone off.

Downgraded to a tropical storm over south Georgia, Michael was weakening by the hour. But it's still menacing the Southeast with heavy rains, winds and a threat of spinoff tornadoes.

As of 8 a.m. Thursday, the storm was about 40 miles west-northwest of Columbia, South Carolina, moving northeast at 21 mph. It's expected to keep blowing across central and eastern North Carolina and southeastern Virginia before crossing into the Atlantic Ocean by late Thursday or early Friday.

At that point, forecasters expect Michael to strengthen again over open water.

Follow @alexbpickett
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