As the Florida Panhandle braces for the most powerful storm to hit its shores in more than a century, Gov. Rick Scott issued dire final warnings to those still along the coast: It is too late to get out. Seek shelter.
“The storm is here,” he said Wednesday morning, flanked by state emergency management chief Wes Maul and several National Guard and Air Force officials. “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.
“If you are in an inland county, you may have one last chance to seek shelter,” he added. “If you made the choice not to evacuate, please find a place to shelter, seek a place of refuge.”
This storm, he said, is “devastating.”
Scott reiterated those warnings to stay off the roads and seek safe shelter on a flurry of television appearances Wednesday morning, including the Weather Channel, CBS and Fox.
“You waited too long,” Scott said bluntly on Fox and Friends. “I think what people didn’t realize was that it could get worse. … If you’re along the coast, you’ve got to hunker down.”
Hurricane Michael, which intensified into a Category 4 storm overnight, is expected to make landfall at that strength near Panama City later Wednesday. Forecasters said the storm’s winds had reached 145 mph and that the hurricane could bring 9 to 13 feet of storm surge along the coast — unprecedented for a region that has not seen a Category 4 landfall since records began in 1851.
Scott added that the storm’s strength could bring hurricane-force winds far inland, “even in a place like Tallahassee.”
By Wednesday morning, Michael had already begun to encroach on the Panhandle and Big Bend, bringing light rain east to Tallahassee and fueling swelling waves on Panama City Beach. In several coastal communities, windows were shingled with plywood and sandbags piled high.
More than 375,000 Floridians were also placed under voluntary or mandatory evacuation orders in coastal regions ahead of Michael’s approach, though some of those orders were not issued until Tuesday.
Scott said some counties told him residents had resisted evacuating despite increasing warnings. In Franklin County Tuesday, southwest of Tallahassee, officials told Scott one of the islands in the county still had about 50 people who intended to ride out the storm despite the evacuation order issued there.
“They’ve talked to them, and they’ve sent sheriff’s deputies down to talk to them, and they’re not going to evacuate,” Scott said. “I’m scared to death for them. I hope nobody keeps any kids down anywhere. It’s one thing for an adult to make a decision; I hope no one makes a decision for a child.”
Scott stressed in the days leading up to the storm that evacuation decisions were made by local officials, though Maul, the state emergency head, sent a letter to legislators and local officials Monday night criticizing local preparedness efforts.
He reiterated similar comments when addressing staffers Tuesday, suggesting that without their work, “it’s questionable what kind of operation we’d be seeing statewide right now.”
But Scott, hours out from landfall, said he believed “everyone’s pushing as hard as they can to get everybody ready.”
“If you look at how fast this thing happened, it wasn’t like [Hurricane] Irma,” he said. “This one happened very quickly.”