Before and after images of Hurricane Michael destruction

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When their house filled with surging ocean water, they fled upstairs. Boats were tossed like toys.

Teresa Sheffield walks out of the remains of her second floor apartment in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael October 11 in Panama City, Florida.

Hurricane Michael is expected to to be a Category 3 storm when it makes landfall around Panama City, Florida, on Wednesday.

Michael lingered for two hours when it slammed into the Florida Panhandle, the strongest storm in the continental United States since Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

The hurricane is now about 295 miles south of Panama City, Florida, but will likely make landfall in the panhandle by 1 p.m. Wednesday.

"All of my furniture was floating", she said Thursday. "It was terrible, and now there's just nothing left".

Michael charged ashore on Wednesday near the small Florida Panhandle town of Mexico Beach as one of the most powerful storms in US history, with top sustained winds of 155 miles per hour (250 km per hour). Forecasters say the storm has already begun shedding its tropical characteristics but will take on a new chapter as a powerful extratropical storm with gale force winds on its trek out to sea.

A driver in North Carolina also was killed when a tree fell on his auto. Street flooding was reported in Roanoke and other southwestern Virginia cities that reported motorists caught in flooding had to be rescued. Similar scenes played out in parts of Virginia as the storm raced seawards.

More than 900,000 homes and businesses in Florida, Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas were without power.

Families living along the Panhandle are now faced with a struggle to survive in a perilous landscape of shattered homes and shopping centres.

He said that authorities were yet to fully explore areas like Mexico Beach in Florida, which he called "ground zero" after it was pummelled by the hurricane. Downed power lines and twisted street signs lay all around.

A man who died when a tree fell on a home near Greensboro, Florida, has been identified as Steven Sweet, according to Lt. Anglie Hightower, Gadsden County Sheriff's Public Information Officer.

Hundreds of residents were rescued on Thursday from cars, apartments and homes flooded by rushing water. The hurricane damaged hospitals and nursing homes in Panama City, and officials worked to evacuate hundreds of patients.

Tropical Storm Michael forms in the Caribbean
Scott issued an order for a state of emergency for 26 counties in the Florida Panhandle and the Big Bend area. Rick Scott warned that the storm could have far-reaching effects, regardless of where it lands.

"So many lives have been changed forever".

"Hope is that even if the storm does come, even if I lose my auto, my house, my family, even if I lose my life, blessed be God", he said.

Michael severely damaged cotton, timber, pecan and peanut crops, causing estimated liabilities as high as $1.9 billion and affecting up to 3.7 million crop acres (1.5 million hectares), said Brad Rippey, a meteorologist for the US Agriculture Department. Boston-based Karen Clark & Company included privately insured wind and storm surge damage to residential, commercial and industrial properties and vehicles in its number. The figure does not include losses covered by the National Flood Insurance Program.

Michael was also endangering dairy and poultry operations in its path. Power outages from storms can be life-threatening to animals in confined farm operations.

Pecan, cotton, and peanut harvests were at risk as the unsafe storm plowed its way through Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and the Carolinas.

Now their home is full of mud and everywhere they look there is utter devastation in their Florida Panhandle community, with roofs lifted off of buildings and pine trees snapped in 155 miles per hour winds. A driver in North Carolina was killed when a tree fell on his vehicle.

The full extent of Michael's fury was only slowly becoming clear, with some of the hardest-hit areas difficult to reach because of roads blocked by debris or water.

"More than 375,000 people up and down the Gulf Coast were ordered or urged to evacuate as Michael closed in". But emergency authorities lamented that many ignored the warnings.

Governor scott says the us coast guard carried out 10 missions overnight, saving at least 27 people. It developed into a hurricane on Monday, and by today, more than 140,000 people were under mandatory evacuation orders.

Now they have the grim task of accounting for all who stayed behind.

A National Guard team went into the area and found 20 survivors Wednesday night, and more crews pushed into the stricken zone on Thursday. But the fate of many residents was unknown.

Mishelle McPherson and her ex-husband searched for the elderly mother of a friend. The woman lived in a small cinderblock house about 150 yards (meters) from the Gulf and thought she would be OK. That home is now smashed, with no sign of the woman. Her official cause of death was due to massive blunt force trauma, Seminole County Coroner Chad Smith told ABC News.