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Cat 4 Hurricane Michael nears Florida coast as strongest storm to ever hit the Panhandle

The leading edge of a ferocious Hurricane Michael roared ashore the Gulf Coast between St. Vincent Island and Panama City just before 1 p.m. Wednesday.

Powerful sustained winds reached 150 mph as the storm began to make landfall, the National Hurricane Center said. Bay, Gulf and Franklin counties were under extreme wind warnings, the first ever issued by the local office of the National Weather Service, with winds gusting above 130 mph. Water levels in Apalachicola have risen 5.5 feet above ground as water washed over coastal roads.

The hurricane had also picked up speed, accelerating to 14 mph, and turned to the northeast.

Hurricane-force winds extend about 45 miles from Michael’s center. Tropical storm winds reach 185 miles.

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The St. Marks River flooded the city of St. Marks Wednesday as Hurricane Michael neared. (AP Photo/Brendan Farrington) Brendan Farrington AP

As winds pounded Panama City just before 1 p.m., a retired airline pilot took refuge in his shiny Mercedes-Benz parked in a hulking concrete garage near downtown. He originally planned to ride out the storm in his 40-foot sailboat, until the marina kicked him out.

“This is probably the safest spot in town,” he said, asking that only his first name, Brian, be used. “A boat was probably not the best place to be.”

His luxury car was stuffed with supplies and an empty Dominos pizza box. As he watched movies on his iPad and answered calls from worried relatives, the garage lights flicked off and howling gusts bent trees in a field across the street. Somewhere nearby, a thumping sound repeated over and over, likely a piece of metal clanging against a building.

Brian was not alone in ignoring evacuation orders. Earlier in the morning, last-minute gawkers stood on the beach near what’s usually a busy tourist hub lined with miniature golf courses, oyster bars and condos.

“I was going to stay here until it got to a category four,” said Randy Simmons, 57, who came to check on his beachfront condo before heading to another inland property he owns. “This is going to be a big mess.”

Simmons had also written his name on his forearm, just in case.

“You just never what’s going to happen,” he said. “People do die.”

A couple hundred yards down the sand, Jeff Moats wondered if he hadn’t made a mistake by not leaving. The Arkansas native said he decided to stay in his Panama City Beach home because it was first hurricane.

“But I’m starting to wonder if I should have left,” he said.

In Port St. Joe, just west of Apalachicola where storm surge is expected to hit hard, police continued patrolling while winds allowed. Bill Kennedy, redevelopment director for the old paper mill town, stopped by rental cottages he owns for a final check before heading to a local high school shelter. Kennedy’s home sits about six feet above sea level, so he expects it to flood.

“It’s going to be okay. We’re going to wake up the next day cutting sheet rock and digging out insulation and we’ll move forward,” he said, but choked up when he considered what his family might lose.

“We just hope we can survive this catastrophic event,” Kennedy said. “It’s never happened before.”

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Flooding above nine feet is forecast for areas highlighted in red. Source: National Hurricane Center

As winds, surge and rain began battering the coast — Apalachicola reporting sustained winds of 40 mph — residents who defied evacuation orders were told it was too late to leave.

“The storm is here,” Gov. Rick Scott said in a Wednesday morning briefing. “If you are in a coastal area, do not leave your house… If you made the choice not to evacuate, please find a place to shelter.”

This storm, he said, is “devastating.”

Dangerous surge is expected to pound the coast from Homosassa Springs to Panama City, with the hardest areas around Apalachicola Bay. The surge could push up rivers as much as 10 to 15 miles, said hurricane center director Ken Graham. Water could rise nine to 13 feet of above normal levels near the Tyndall Air Force Base and between four and six feet around Cedar Key.

While only forecast to reach Cat 3 intensity on Tuesday afternoon, winds increased quickly from 140 mph to 145 mph in just two hours Wednesday morning. By 7 a.m., blustery tropical storm-force conditions had already begun to spread across parts of the Gulf Coast. About 90 miles southwest of Panama City, a NOAA buoy recorded sustained 60 mph winds and gusts up to 76 mph, forecasters said.

Pressure in the fierce system was down to 928 millibars, a unit of pressure used to determine a storm’s strength. Only seven hurricanes on record have made landfall in Florida with a lower pressure, according to Colorado State University meteorologist Phil Klotzbach, including the 1926 Miami hurricane, the 1928 Okeechobee hurricane, the 1935 Labor Day storm and Andrew and Irma.

If it remains a Cat 4 at landfall, Michael will be the first in the Panhandle since records started. The last major storms to hit the area occurred more than a decade ago. Hurricane Ivan made landfall in 2004 near Pensacola followed by Dennis in 2005 on Santa Rosa Island. Both were Cat 3 storms.

Tampa Bay Times reporter Zachary T. Sampson contributed to this story.

Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich