Michael downgraded to tropical storm, kills 2 in Florida

The storm’s eye is moving towards the Carolinas, which are still reeling from Hurricane Florence floods.

    The most powerful hurricane to hit Florida's panhandle caused wide destruction and killed at least two people as it moved northeast. 

    Michael was downgraded by the National Hurricane Center (NHC) from a Category 4 hurricane to a tropical storm early on Thursday.

    The storm’s eye is moving across southern Georgia and towards North and South Carolina, which are still reeling from epic floods caused by Hurricane Florence last month.

    The NHC in Miami said Michael's eye was about 25 miles (40km) east of Macon in central Georgia at 2am (06:00 GMT) on Thursday. The storm had top sustained winds of 96 kilometres per hour and was moving to the northeast at 32km/h.

    The two people killed in the storm were a man who died when a tree toppled onto his house in Florida and a girl who died when debris fell into a home in Georgia, officials and local media said.

    Nearly 30 million people are in danger of being impacted by Michael, according to estimates. Over 370,000 people are without power in Florida, Alabama and Georgia. 

    Long recovery

    The storm made landfall near Panama City in the Florida Panhandle on Wednesday, the most powerful hurricane to hit the region since the mid-1800s, according to the Federal Emergency Management Service.

    Michael shattered houses and buildings, downed power lines and ripped up trees when it crashed ashore, carrying winds of up to 250km/h and causing deep seawater flooding.

    “I think everything from Panama City down to Mexico Beach is way worse than anybody ever anticipated,” Florida Governor Rick Scott told the Weather Channel. 

    “This is going to be a long recovery but Florida is resilient, we help each other, and we survive,” Scott said. “We worked all night in endangered circumstances.”

    The governor pleaded with people in the hard-hit areas not to go home yet.

    “I know you just want to go home. You want to check on things, and begin the recovery process,” Scott said. But “we have to make sure things are safe.”

    'A house is on the highway'

    The Coast Guard said it rescued at least 27 people before and after the hurricane hit, mostly from homes along the Florida coastline, and searched for more victims.

    Among those brought to safety were nine people rescued by helicopter from a bathroom in their Panama City home after their roof collapsed, Petty Officer 3rd Class Ronald Hodges said.

    Megan Williams, left, and roommate Kaylee O'Brian take belongings from their destroyed home after several trees fell on the house during Hurricane Michael in Panama City [Gerald Herbert/AP Photo] 

    In Panama City, Vance Beu, 29, was staying with his mother at her home in a complex of single-story wood-frame buildings. They piled up mattresses around themselves for protection.

    A pine tree punched a hole in their roof, and Beu’s ears popped because of the drop in barometric pressure from the storm. The roar of the winds, he said, sounded like a jet engine.

    “It was terrifying, honestly. There was a lot of noise. We thought the windows were going to break at any time,” Beu told the Associated Press.

    Sally Crown rode out Michael on the Panhandle thinking at first that the worst damage was the many trees downed in her yard. But after the storm passed, she emerged to check on the cafe she manages and discovered a scene of breathtaking destruction.

    “It’s absolutely horrendous. Catastrophic,” Crown to the Associated Press. “There’s flooding. Boats on the highway. A house on the highway. Houses that have been there forever are just shattered.”

    Michael intensified quickly

    President Donald Trump had declared a state of emergency for all of Florida on Wednesday. The designation allows federal funds to be provided for disaster relief and authorizes FEMA to coordinate disaster relief.

    Michael sprang quickly from a weekend tropical depression, going from a Category 2 on Tuesday to a Category 4 by the time it came ashore.

    It forced more than 375,000 people up and down the Gulf Coast to evacuate as it gained strength quickly while crossing the eastern Gulf of Mexico towards north Florida.

    It moved so fast that people didn't have much time to prepare.

    Based on its internal barometric pressure, Michael was the third-most powerful hurricane to hit the US mainland, behind the unnamed Labor Day storm of 1935 and Camille in 1969.

    Based on wind speed, it was the fourth-strongest, behind the Labor Day storm (296 kph), Camille and Andrew in 1992.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies