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WHAT'S HAPPENING: Widespread catastrophic damage in Florida

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Michael, the third most powerful hurricane ever to hit the US mainland, weakened overnight to a tropical storm and pushed northeast on Thursday, bringing drenching rains to Georgia and the Carolinas, which are still recovering from Hurricane Florence last month.

It could be the strongest hurricane to hit the Florida panhandle in recorded history.

The top wind speeds are an estimate from an instrument on the Hurricane Hunter aircraft.

Images captured by Associated Press journalists show the devastation left in Hurricane Michael's wake.

The winds were strong enough to pierce the windshield of a vehicle in Panama City Beach.

Sergeant Anglie Hightower of the Gadsden County Sheriff's Office told local television that the storm left four people dead in the Florida Panhandle county. Accuweather predicted Michael's total damage and economic impact will reach close to $30 billion, which would make it one of the 10 costliest hurricanes in USA history.

Long said several hospitals in the Panhandle were hit by the hurricane and patients had to be evacuated. "When the water came in, houses started floating in front of our home".

Storm surge warnings were in place along the Florida and Alabama coasts. Many filled sandbags and boarded up homes and lined up to buy gas and groceries before leaving town.

By 2 p.m. EDT (1600 GMT), the storm had pushed northeast to within 25 miles (40 km) of Greensboro, North Carolina, carrying 50-mph (85-kph) winds, the NHC said.

Smith, in Gadsden County, said the situation was unsafe even for emergency personnel.

In the small Panhandle city of Apalachicola, Mayor Van Johnson Sr. said the 2,300 residents were frantically preparing for what could be a strike unlike any seen there in decades.

Smith could not provide details on the victim. "We haven t seen as robust of an evacuation response from the civilian population that we have seen in other storms".

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This means that the state is activating all of its resources to make sure people are safe ahead of the hurricane.

It warned of a life-threatening storm surge, hurricane force winds and heavy rainfall along the north-eastern Gulf coast.

"The wind that came through here was surreal".

An estimated 375,000 people in more than 20 counties were ordered or advised to evacuate.

"Why people didn't evacuate is something we should be studying", said Craig Fugate, former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and a former Florida state emergency management chief.

"Hurricane Michael is an unprecedented event and can not be compared to any of our previous events".

Zee was in the eye wall of the storm for more than an hour, with conditions were so bad that she and her team lost the ability to broadcast.

- Staying safe: almost 6,700 people took refuge in 54 shelters in Florida.

"This situation has NEVER happened before", it said on Twitter.

Though reduced to a tropical storm, it brought flash flooding to North Carolina and Virginia, soaking areas still recovering from Hurricane Florence. Following Hurricane Irma past year, 14 people died when a South Florida nursing home lost power and air conditioning.

Forecasters say that 4 to 8 inches of rain is expected along the path of the storm, and 12 inches could fall in some parts of the Panhandle.

With a low barometric pressure recorded at 919 millibars, the measure of a hurricane's force, Michael was the third strongest storm on record to hit the continental United States, behind only Hurricane Camille on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 1969 and the Labor Day hurricane of 1935 in the Florida Keys.

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