Florida shifts to search and rescue after Hurricane Michael

At least 388,000 utility customers lost power as Hurricane Michael crashed ashore —- with potentially catastrophic winds of 155 mph —- between Panama City and St. Vincent Island, before speeding north into Alabama and Georgia on Wednesday.

The Category 4 storm created storm surges up to 14 feet in areas, inflicted damages across Tyndall Air Force Base east of Panama City and spawned at least two “devastating” tornadoes in Gadsden County. The monster hurricane was the most powerful ever recorded to hit the Panhandle and was on par with Hurricanes Irma, which swept across Florida in September 2017, and Andrew, which devastated Homestead in 1992.

Addressing the media at the state Emergency Operations Center Wednesday afternoon, Gov. Rick Scott said a “massive wave of response” was already underway from the state, utilities and the U.S. Coast Guard, for the storm that “came really fast.”

“We’re sending them out now,” Scott said.

Scott earlier had expressed frustration about people resisting evacuation orders, but there were no immediate reports of fatalities amid reports of significant damages throughout the region.

The governor didn’t wait for damage assessments before seeking federal assistance from President Donald Trump for 14 counties: Bay, Calhoun, Franklin, Gadsden, Gulf, Hamilton, Jackson, Jefferson, Leon, Liberty, Madison, Suwannee, Taylor and Wakulla.

In a letter to Trump written Wednesday afternoon, Scott said “there is no need for damage assessment," due to the level of devastation.

“On the state side, the impacts to Bay and Franklin counties alone should be more than enough to meet the $27 million threshold for public assistance,” Scott wrote. “And, the needs of the survivors in those counties should paint a sufficient picture for an individual assistance declaration.”

Scott, who expressed frustration earlier in the day about people ignoring evacuation orders, noted that the state has already spent close to $40 million on its response.

Through the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, Florida has also requested rescue teams and equipment from states including Kansas, Wisconsin, Colorado, Mississippi, Virginia, Louisiana, Ohio, Oregon, New York, Tennessee and Maryland.

In the letter to the president, Scott wrote that the impacts of Michael are “so extraordinary that a higher federal cost share is warranted.” He called for 100 percent federal cost share on debris removal in affected counties for the next 60 days, and also asked for transitional housing assistance.

U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio, along with 20 House members from Florida, sent a similar letter to Trump regarding aid for the 14 counties.

As the storm came ashore Wednesday, tornado risks grew, with warnings issued as far south as Sarasota County.

Cars were reported underwater as far south as Citrus County. Interstate 10 was closed west of Tallahassee.

Moving north-northeast at 16 mph, the center of Michael, with maximum sustained winds of 125 mph, reached southeastern Alabama and southwest Georgia by 5 p.m.

Gulf Power spokesman Jeff Rogers warned that customers could be without power “for weeks” as crews are expected both to be restoring power and rebuilding parts of the system.

“Northwest Florida has never encountered a storm of this magnitude,” Rogers said in a release.

Pensacola-based Gulf Power estimated that up to 225,000 of its customers could be impacted by the storm that pounded the Panhandle throughout the afternoon and into the evening.

Duke Energy Florida expected 100,000 to 200,000 customers to lose power.

The state Division of Emergency Management reported 388,100 power outages just after 6 p.m., without any breakdown.

Power was out in nearly 90 percent of Bay County, which includes Panama City, as night fell Wednesday.

At the same time, Duke Energy reported about 30,000 outages, mostly along the coast from Davis Beach east to Port Leon, south of Tallahassee.

Among the smaller utility providers, Talquin Electric —- which provides electricity in Gadsden, Liberty, Leon, and Wakulla counties —- reported 35,314 of its 52,013 customers were affected by the storm.

Tallahassee Electric reported just over 3,000 outages and nearly 50,000 customers impacted.

Utility crews from Gulf Power, Duke Energy Florida, Florida Power & Light and public utilities have lined up more than 19,000 workers from their own crews and through mutual-aid agreements with companies across the South and Midwest.

Scott spoke Wednesday morning with Trump, who signed a pre-landfall emergency declaration Tuesday ensuring that federal resources would be available before and after the storm in the 35 counties where the governor declared a state of emergency.

Before the storm made landfall, Scott said he activated 3,500 members of the Florida National Guard. More than 1,000 state forestry and wildlife officers were prepared for search-and-rescue operations, Scott said. He advised tourists and residents that had yet to heed evacuation calls early Wednesday to “hunker down,” warning, “It’s going to get worse pretty fast here.”

Florida Emergency Management Director Wes Maul said the state is prepared to conduct search-and-rescue operations and to deliver food and medical supplies to affected areas.

“Human needs, there’s going to be a lot,” Maul said. “Look at what is on the list: medical, water, food, shelter, emergency fuel. The time for opening shelters is over.”

As of 4 a.m. Wednesday, nearly 8,000 people were being housed in 54 shelters across the Panhandle and Big Bend, according to the state Division of Emergency Management.
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