PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. (WDRB) -- Supercharged by abnormally warm waters in the Gulf of Mexico, Hurricane Michael tore away tree limbs and sent pieces of buildings flying Wednesday as it crashed into the Florida Panhandle with catastrophic winds of 150 mph and a towering storm surge.

It was one of the most intense hurricanes ever to hit the U.S. mainland and the most powerful one on record to menace the Panhandle, a roughly 200-mile stretch of fishing towns, military bases and spring-break beaches.

Michael is the third strongest hurricane to ever make landfall in the United States. The only stronger storms were the Labor Day Hurricane in 1935 (892 mb pressure) and Hurricane Camille in 1969 (900 mb pressure).

WDRB's Marc Weinberg and Travis Ragsdale are in Panama City Beach covering the storm with photojournalist Hobie Crase.

The two surveyed the area Wednesday and said the Panama City area will see "significant" damage from wind and rain alike. 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.

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

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.

“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.

More than 375,000 people up and down the Gulf Coast were urged to evacuate. But emergency authorities lamented that many people ignored the warnings and seemed to think they could ride it out.

Diane Farris, 57, and her son walked to a high school-turned-shelter near their home in Panama City to find about 1,100 people crammed into a space meant for about half as many. Neither she nor her son had any way to communicate because their lone cellphone got wet and quit working.

“I’m worried about my daughter and grandbaby. I don’t know where they are. You know, that’s hard,” she said, choking back tears.

Only a skeleton staff remained at Tyndall Air Force Base, situated on a peninsula just south of Panama City. The home of the 325th Fighter Wing and some 600 military families appeared squarely targeted for the worst of the storm’s fury, and leaders declared HURCON 1 status, ordering out all but essential personnel.

The base’s aircraft, which include F-22 Raptors, were flown hundreds of miles away as a precaution. Forecasters predicted 9 to 14 feet of water at Tyndall.

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.

Meteorologists watched satellite imagery in complete awe as the storm intensified.

“We are in new territory,” National Hurricane Center Meteorologist Dennis Feltgen wrote on Facebook. “The historical record, going back to 1851, finds no Category 4 hurricane ever hitting the Florida panhandle.”

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.

 
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