PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. (WDRB/AP) -- Gaining fury with every passing hour, Hurricane Michael closed in Wednesday on the Florida Panhandle with potentially catastrophic winds of 150 mph, the most powerful storm on record ever to menace the stretch of fishing towns, military bases and spring-break beaches.

With more than 375,000 people up and down the Gulf Coast warned to evacuate, the hurricane’s leading edge began lashing the white-sand shoreline with strong winds, rain and rising seas before daybreak, hours before Michael’s center was expected to blow ashore.

Michael became a Category 4 hurricane overnight.  

WDRB's Marc Weinberg and Travis Ragsdale are in Panama City Beach covering the third most powerful storm to ever make landfall in the U.S.

Weinberg and Ragsdale say the biggest difference between Michael and Hurricane Florence is that Michael is much more likely to maintain its power as it approaches the United States.

The two surveyed the area Wednesday, and said the Panama City area will see "significant" damage from wind and rain alike. A Category 4 storm hitting the U.S. isn't common, and a storm surge between 10 to 13 feet could swallow portions of the popular coastal communities in the Florida Panhandle.

Most of the beach was under water early Wednesday, but the biggest concern with this storm is its powerful winds. 

Ragsdale and Weinberg were watching as a building collapsed on the beach late Wednesday morning. 

"This hurricane is stronger than Hurricane Harvey was last year," Weinberg said. "I think at landfall, in this area, we're going to be talking about 145 mile per hour sustained winds. Those are extraordinarily strong winds. That is in the upper echelon of a Category 4."

Weinberg predicts that the storm will make landfall between and 2 and 4 p.m., with wind gusts up to 160 miles per hour. 

“This storm is truly going to be historic in the panhandle as the strongest that’s ever hit this area," he said. 

By early afternoon, the eye wall was approaching the upper Grand Lagoon just east of Panama City Beach. The intensity of its winds could be seen in a tweet from Ragsdale. 

Evacuations spanned 22 counties from the Florida Panhandle into north central Florida. But civilians don’t have to follow orders, and authorities feared many failed to heed their calls to get out of the way as the hard-charging storm intensified over 84-degree water in the Gulf of Mexico.

“I guess it’s the worst-case scenario. I don’t think anyone would have experienced this in the Panhandle,” meteorologist Ryan Maue of weathermodels.com told The Associated Press. “This is going to have structure-damaging winds along the coast and hurricane force winds inland.”

Maue and other meteorologists watched in real time as a new government satellite showed the hurricane’s eye tightening, surrounded by lightning that lit it up “like a Christmas tree.”

“The time to evacuate has come and gone ... SEEK REFUGE IMMEDIATELY,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott tweeted, while the sheriff in Panama City’s Bay County issued a shelter-in-place order before dawn.

As of 11 a.m. EDT, Michael was centered about 60 miles (95 kilometers) south of Panama City, its winds at 145 mph (230 kmh), with forecasters saying it could intensify further. It was moving at 14 mph (22 kph). Hurricane-force winds extended up to 45 miles (75 kilometers) from its center.

Sheriff A.J. Smith in Franklin County, near the vulnerable coast, sent his deputies door to door Tuesday urging people to evacuate, saying they did everything they could to get the word out.

The storm appeared to be so powerful — with a central pressure dropping to 933 millibars — that it is expected to remain a hurricane as it moves over Georgia early Thursday.

Forecasters said it will unleash damaging winds and rain all the way into the Carolinas, which are still recovering from Hurricane Florence’s epic flooding.

Stay with WDRB News for continuing coverage of the storm. 

Copyright 2018 WDRB Media. The Associated Press contributed to this report. All Rights Reserved.