Too late for some to flee Florida coast ahead of Michael's landfall

As people in the Florida Panhandle prepared for the still-strengthening, potentially history-making Category 4 Hurricane Michael to make landfall Wednesday, officials made it clear to those who stayed behind along the wind-and-rain-pummeled coast: it is now too late to leave.

"The time for evacuating along the coast has come and gone. First responders will not be able to come out in the middle of the storm. If you chose to stay in an evacuation zone, you must SEEK REFUGE IMMEDIATELY," Florida Gov. Rick Scott said in a tweet.

"We expect conditions across the Panhandle to begin deteriorating rapidly. Now the storm is here. It is not safe to travel across the Panhandle,” he added during a Wednesday morning news conference.


The latest on the storm:

  • More than 6,000 customers in Florida are without power.
  • More than 375,000 Florida residents are under evacuation orders.
  • The storm is packing maximum sustained winds of 145 MPH and could strengthen by landfall Wednesday afternoon.
  • The storm is located 60 miles south-southwest of Panama City, Florida, and 65 miles west-southwest of Apalachicola as of 11 a.m. ET

Michael is set to be the first storm of its magnitude to hit the panhandle in more than 150 years.

"The historical record, going back to 1851, finds no Category 4 hurricane ever hitting the Florida panhandle," National Hurricane Center Meteorologist Dennis Feltgen wrote in a Facebook post-Wednesday.

Although the storm wasn't forecast to make landfall until Wednesday afternoon, the National Hurricane Center warned in the morning that heavy rainfall, "life-threatening" storm surge and hurricane force winds were "imminent." Michael's top sustained winds had hit 145 mph, and the storm could still strengthen, the center said.

RELATED: Preparations for Hurricane Michael

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Preparations for Hurricane Michael
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Preparations for Hurricane Michael
Lifeguards patrol the beach in advance of Hurricane Michael in Pensacola, Florida, U.S. October 9, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman
This satellite image provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows a view of Tropical Storm Michael, lower right, churning as it heads toward the Florida Panhandle, Sunday, Oct. 7, 2018, at 6:52 p.m. Eastern Time. (NOAA via AP)
Culwinder Singh, top, and Sukhdeep Uppal board up the front of their store in advance of Hurricane Michael in Destin, Florida, U.S. October 9, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman
Rob Docko ties a knot while securing his boat at the St. Andrews Marina in Panama City, Fla., Monday, Oct. 8, 2018, to prepare for Hurricane Michael. (Patti Blake /News Herald via AP)
A red flag, warning of dangerous conditions, is seen on a pier in advance of Hurricane Michael in Pensacola, Florida, U.S. October 9, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman
Alexander Charnicharo fishes at the seafront in Havana as Hurricane Michael passes by western Cuba on October 8, 2018. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini
Capt. Steve Haeusler, left, and Wyatt Ferreira take down the sign for Haeusler's charter fishing boat "First Light" on Monday, Oct. 8, 2018. Boat captains in this fishing community were relocating their vessels to safer locations in advance of Hurricane Michael. (Devon Ravine/Northwest Florida Daily News via AP)
A woman, who refused to give her name, looks out over the water from her porch amid fears she will never see her home again as Hurricane Michael bears down on Alligator Point, Florida, U.S., October 9, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 08: Drivers line up for gasoline as Hurricane Michael bears down on the northern Gulf coast of Florida on October 8, 2018 in Tallahassee, Florida. Michael was forecast to become a Category 3 storm with sustained winds of 120 mph when it makes landfall in the Florida panhandle later this week. (Photo by Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images)
Commercial boats leave the Destin Harbor in Destin, Fla., on Monday, Oct. 8, 2018. Residents of this Florida panhandle city were busy Monday readying themselves for Hurricane Michael, which is predicted to make landfall somewhere around Panama City, Fla. (Devon Ravine/Northwest Florida Daily News via AP)
TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 08: Drivers line up for gasoline as Hurricane Michael bears down on the northern Gulf coast of Florida on October 8, 2018 in Tallahassee, Florida. Michael was forecast to become a Category 3 storm with sustained winds of 120 mph when it makes landfall in the Florida panhandle later this week. (Photo by Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images)
Bobby Smith boards up the windows at Jani's Ceramics in Panama City, Fla., on Monday, Oct. 8, 2018, in preparation for the arrival of Hurricane Michael. (Patti Blake/News Herald via AP)
TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 08: People line up for gasoline as Hurricane Michael bears down on the northern Gulf coast of Florida on October 8, 2018 outside Tallahassee, Florida. Michael was forecast to become a Category 3 storm with sustained winds of 120 mph when it makes landfall in the Florida panhandle later this week. (Photo by Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images)
Aaron Smith carries a couple hundred feet of anchor rope as prepares to move his charter fishing boat "Sea Fix" from the Destin Harbor in Destin, Fla., on Monday, Oct. 8, 2018. Boat captains in this fishing community were relocating their vessels to safer locations in advance of Hurricane Michael. (Devon Ravine/Northwest Florida Daily News via AP)
Tallahassee Mayor and Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Andrew Gillum, left, helps Eboni Sipling fill up sandbags in Tallahassee, Fla., Monday, Oct. 8, 2018. Residents in Florida's Panhandle and Big Bend are getting ready for Hurricane Michael, which is expected to make landfall by midweek. (AP Photo/Gary Fineout)
Wyatt Ferreira gets ready to move the charter fishing boat "First Light" from its mooring in the harbor in Destin, Fla., Monday, Oct. 8, 2018. Boat captains in this fishing community were relocating their vessels to safer waters in advance of Hurricane Michael. (Devon Ravine/Northwest Florida Daily News via AP)
Bobby Smith boards up the windows at Jani's Ceramics in Panama City, Fla., on Monday, Oct. 8, 2018, in preparation for the arrival of Hurricane Michael. (Patti Blake/News Herald via AP)
A worker removes equipment from a home as Hurricane Michael bears down on Alligator Point, Florida, U.S., October 9, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
Justin Davis, left, and Brock Mclean board up a business in advance of Hurricane Michael in Destin, Florida, U.S. October 9, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman
A red flag, warning of dangerous conditions, is seen in advance of Hurricane Michael in Pensacola, Florida, U.S. October 9, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman
Ray Callahan pumps gasoline in advance of Hurricane Michael in Gulf Breeze, Florida, U.S. October 9, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman
A woman jogs with a dog as waves splash at the seafront in Havana, after Hurricane Michael passed in western Cuba, October 9, 2018. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini
A woman who refused to give her name, wipes a tear as she sits and packs her final few belongings and fears she will never see her home again as Hurricane Michael bears down on Alligator Point, Florida, U.S., October 9, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
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Those winds would extend from the eye of the storm by 45 miles, the Hurricane Center said, and tropical storm-force winds could extend up to 185 miles outward.

Storm surge would be the most catastrophic on the Florida coast at nine to 14 feet. "The water will come miles inshore and can easily rise over the roofs of houses," Scott said, adding that even 2 feet of storm surge could be deadly.

With the storm 90 miles off the coast of Panama City and Apalachicola, more than 375,000 residents in dozens of Florida counties were under evacuation orders Wednesday, but FEMA administrator Brock Long said some residents don't have time to flee.

"If you failed to heed a warning for any reason, your goal should be to elevate as high as you can and get into a facility that you think can withstand the winds at this point and hope for the best," Long said.

Long warned on Wednesday morning that the window of time for people still deciding if they would evacuate was closing.

"This is the final call for anybody that needs to get out, try to do so," Long said. "Those who stick around to experience storm surge don’t typically live to tell about it, unfortunately."

But for many, the opportunity to evacuate had passed.

A Weather Channel crew even tried to leave their base in Apalachicola, but couldn't because storm conditions made it impossible to drive, meteorologist Mike Bettes said on Twitter.

The sheriff in Panama City's Bay County issued a shelter-in-place order early Wednesday, and the county's Department of Emergency Services said officers could no longer respond to calls.

"Life-threatening conditions are beginning to occur in Bay County. It is now time to shelter in place. Go inside, stay inside," said a tweet from the office.

"It's about too late to find shelters with #Michael moving in right now. The best thing to do is find shelter in your own place away from any windows," The National Weather Service in Tallahassee, about 20 miles inland, echoed.

Officials also shut down the Hathaway Bridge on Wednesday, which connects Panama City and Panama City Beach, and is a main route in and out of the cities.

Torrential rains, destructive winds and possible tornadoes would also extend well inland. Parts of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and the Carolinas would also likely be hard-hit. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency for 92 counties.

In North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper issued a state of emergency ahead of Michael, according to NBC News affiliate WCNC. Tropical storm warnings and storm surge watches were issued for parts of the coast of North Carolina, according to NOAA. The state was pummeled last month by Hurricane Florence.

Peter Macias, of the Red Cross, said that overnight approximately 4,000 people entered nearly 70 evacuation centers across the Florida panhandle and into Alabama.

On Tuesday, President Donald Trump signed the emergency declaration requested by Scott for 35 Florida counties. Scott said Wednesday morning he updated the president on the storm, and Trump offered any necessary resources "as we prepare to respond to this massive and catastrophic storm."

Government offices will close in those 35 counties, and while Tuesday was the deadline for Floridians to register to vote, residents will be allowed to register on the day those offices reopen, according to a statement from the Florida secretary of state. The Florida Democratic Party filed a lawsuit Tuesday saying that the one-day extension was insufficient and confusing.

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