This story has been updated.
Hurricane Michael crashed into Florida’s northwestern Panhandle coast Wednesday, flooding towns and ripping up trees with 155-mile- per-hour winds and the potential for a devastating storm surge.
Michael was the most powerful storm ever recorded to hit the Panhandle. It grew from a tropical storm to Category 4 hurricane in about 40 hours before it landed near the town of Mexico Beach on Wednesday afternoon. Rainfall could bring about 14 feet of water to the region.
Authorities had told residents along the affected areas of Florida’s Gulf of Mexico coast early Wednesday that they had run out of time to evacuate and should hunker down.
“This kind of sprung up for us quite quickly,” said Andrew Gillum, mayor of Tallahassee, which lies about 25 miles from the coast.
People in coastal parts of 20 Florida counties had been told to leave their homes. Much of the area is rural and known for small tourist cities, beaches and wildlife reserves.
“Hurricane Michael is forecast to be the most destructive hurricane to hit the Florida Panhandle in a century,” Scott told reporters.
On Tuesday, President Trump declared a state of emergency for all of Florida.
Among people who had fled their homes was Betty Early, 75, a retiree who joined about 300 fellow evacuees huddled on makeshift bed rolls of blankets and collapsed cardboard boxes at an elementary school serving as an American Red Cross shelter in Panama City. She was unsure how well her old, wood-framed apartment block would hold up.
“I’m blessed to have a place to come,” she said. “My greatest concern is not having electricity and living on a fixed income, losing my food.”
About 2,500 National Guard troops were deployed to assist with evacuations and storm preparations, and more than 4,000 others were on standby. Some 17,000 utility restoration workers were also on call.
The last major hurricane, a storm of Category 3, to hit the area was Dennis in 2005, according to hurricane center data.