Hurricane Michael, the third most powerful storm ever to strike the U.S. mainland, headed northeast on Thursday, weakened but still set to soak Georgia and the Carolinas after devastating the Florida Panhandle.
A man was killed when a tree toppled onto his house in Florida and a girl died when debris fell into a home in Georgia, officials said and local media reported.
The Category 4 hurricane was the fiercest to hit Florida in 80 years when it came ashore on Wednesday, but its strength waned as it pushed into Georgia. Early on Thursday, it was downgraded to a tropical storm, with top sustained winds diminishing to 60 miles per hour.
More than 700,000 homes and businesses were without power in Florida, Alabama and Georgia early Thursday. Thousands hunkered down in shelters overnight after fleeing their homes to escape the fast-approaching storm.
The storm, packing sustained winds that reached 155 miles per hour, clobbered communities across the Panhandle, toppling buildings, downing trees and power lines and turning streets into roof-high waterways, television footage showed.
“The wind that came through here was surreal. It destroyed everything,” Jason Gunderson, a member of the Cajun Navy, a group of rescue workers, told CNN early Thursday from Callaway, a suburb of Panama City in the Florida Panhandle. “It’s unlivable. It’s heartbreaking.”
Michael rapidly intensified as it churned north over the Gulf of Mexico and caught many by surprise. The storm made landfall on Wednesday afternoon near Mexico Beach, about 20 miles (32 km) southeast of Panama City.
The governors of North and South Carolina urged residents to brace for heavy rain and storm-force winds as Michael plowed northward up the Atlantic seaboard. The Carolinas are still recovering from Hurricane Florence less than a month ago.
The National Hurricane Center (NHC) said Michael would dump as much as 8 inches of rain in some areas. Up to a foot (30 cm) of rain was forecast in Florida.
Television news footage showed homes submerged in floodwaters up to their roofs in Mexico Beach. The fate of about 280 residents who authorities said ignored evacuation orders was unknown.
Numerous buildings in Panama City were demolished or left without roofs amid deserted streets littered with debris, twisted, fallen tree trunks and dangling wires.
Bill Manning, a 63-year-old grocery clerk, fled his camper van in Panama City for safer quarters in a hotel only to see the electricity there go out.