A man and an 11-year-old girl have been killed after the third most powerful hurricane to hit the US on record smashed into Florida’s Panhandle.
The man was killed by a tree falling on a Florida home during Hurricane Michael, while the girl died when a tree came down on a house in south-west Georgia.
Search and rescue crews have been escalating efforts to reach the hardest-hit areas and check for anyone trapped or injured in the storm debris.
The Category 4 storm, supercharged by abnormally warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, crashed ashore in the early afternoon on Thursday near tourist town Mexico Beach.
After it ravaged the Panhandle, Michael barrelled into south Georgia as a Category 3 hurricane – the most powerful ever recorded for that part of the state. It later weakened to a Category 1 hurricane.
In north Florida, severe weather battered the shoreline with sideways rain, powerful gusts and crashing waves, swamping streets and docks, flattening trees, shredding awnings and peeling away shingles.
It set off transformer explosions and knocked out power to more than 388,000 homes and businesses.
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Resident Kaylee O’Brien cried as she sorted through the remains of the property she shared with three roommates at Whispering Pines apartments.
Four pine trees had crashed through the roof of her apartment, nearly hitting two people. Her one-year-old Siamese cat, Molly, was missing.
In Apalachicola, Sally Crown rode out the storm in her house, where multiple trees came crashing down.
After the storm passed, she drove to check on the cafe she manages and saw breathtaking destruction.
Ms Crown said: “It’s absolutely horrendous. Catastrophic. There’s flooding. Boats on the highway. A house on the highway. Houses that have been there forever are just shattered.”
Farjana Akther records high waves with her smart phone during high tide at Pass-A-Grille Beach (AP)
Florida Governor Rick Scott announced soon after the powerful eye had swept inland that ‘aggressive’ search and rescue efforts would get under way as conditions allowed.
Urging people to stay off debris-littered roads, he said: “If you and your family made it through the storm safely, the worst thing you could do now is act foolishly.”
Michael was a meteorological brute that 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 was the most powerful hurricane on record to hit the Panhandle.
More than 375,000 people up and down the Gulf Coast were urged to evacuate as Michael closed in.
Based on its internal barometric pressure, Michael was the third most powerful hurricane to hit the US mainland, behind the unnamed Labour Day storm of 1935 and Camille in 1969.
Based on wind speed, it was the fourth-strongest, behind the Labour Day storm (184 mph), Camille and Andrew in 1992
Donald Trump said: “God bless everyone because it’s going to be a rough one. A very dangerous one.”
His office said he would tour the devastated areas next week.
National Hurricane Cente Meteorologist Dennis Feltgen wrote on Facebook: “We are in new territory. The historical record, going back to 1851, finds no Category 4 hurricane ever hitting the Florida panhandle.”