By Umar Farooq
Few buildings are left standing Thursday after Hurricane Michael hit Mexico Beach, Florida, leaving a destructive path while continuing its rampage across the southeastern U.S.
The hurricane was downgraded from a Category 4 to a tropical storm and is currently moving up the Carolinas. But Michael is still boasting winds of 50 mph (80 kph), according to the National Hurricane Center (NHC). The winds extend 185 miles (295 km) to the south and east of the center.
“Tropical storm wind gusts will continue across much of South Carolina and central and eastern North Carolina, with sustained tropical storm force winds expected along the coast of the Carolinas,” the agency said.
The storm made landfall near Mexico Beach, with wind speeds reaching 155 miles per hour (249 kph) – just shy of a Category 5 hurricane.
It devastated Florida’s Panhandle region, leaving much of the area in ruins.
Video footage from Panama City showed roofs being ripped off buildings and palm trees tossed side-to-side like rag dolls as rain mixed with debris flying through the air.
“Right now the focus is truly on life safety and making sure we are helping people who may be trapped,” said Brock Long, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
The death toll has risen to at least two but officials fear the figure will rise as the extent of the damage becomes more clear.
“Hurricane Michael is a monstrous storm,” said Florida Governor Rick Scott. “Hurricane Michael is forecasted to be the most destructive storm to hit the Florida Panhandle in decades.”
Michael was the fourth hurricane to make landfall in the U.S. as a Category 4 storm in the past 14 months.
It is expected to continue pelting rain along the southeast with 4 – 7 inches (10 – 18 centimeters) expected from South Carolina to the southern mid-Atlantic region. Some isolated areas in North Carolina and Virginia could receive totals of 9 inches (23 cm).