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Hurricane Michael Makes Landfall on Florida Panhandle as Category 4 Storm

Hurricane Michael made landfall on the Florida Panhandle Wednesday, with 155 mile-per-hour winds establishing it as the strongest storm to hit the continental U.S. since 2004.

Michael is expected to batter Panama City and nearby areas with a potentially deadly 14-foot storm surge, according to the latest National Hurricane Center update. The swift-moving monster is set to drop as much as 12 inches of rain in some areas as it races north toward Georgia, Alabama and a Carolinas region still recovering from Hurricane Florence.

“A storm like this could be a once-in-a-lifetime event,” said Brett Rathbun, a meteorologist with AccuWeather Inc. in State College, Pennsylvania. “Winds of this intensity can really knock down any tree or structure in its path.”

The storm made landfall near Mexico Beach, Florida, the Hurricane Center reported. As much as 40 percent of oil production in the Gulf of Mexico and 28 percent of natural gas output was shut down as the storm pushed toward land. Regional ports are closed, and almost 300 flights have been canceled. About 104,000 homes and businesses lost power before the storm made landfall.

As a Category 4 storm, Michael is the most intense to make landfall on the panhandle in U.S. records dating back to 1851, with the last major hurricane, Dennis, arriving as a Category 3 in 2005. The last storm to batter the mainland at Michael’s strength was Hurricane Charley in 2004, which hit Florida’s West Coast about 90 miles south of Tampa.

In September, Hurricane Florence’s winds peaked at 137 miles per hour off the U.S. coast, but dropped in intensity prior to the storm’s landfall in the Carolinas. Now known more for its rains than the strength of its winds, Florence caused devastating floods, killed at least 39 and caused about $45 billion in estimated damages.

Michael, hitting in a less populated area, is “a different monster than Florence,” AccuWeather’s Rathbun said. Rather than lingering in one region as Florence did, inundating the Carolinas with rain, Michael is expected to race north to Georgia by Thursday, and reach the coast of Massachusetts by the weekend, he said.

About 375,000 people live in areas covered by local evacuation orders.

The storm may weaken after landfall as it moves across the southeastern U.S. before reemerging over the Atlantic, the hurricane center said in its advisory. Damage from the storm could reach $16 billion, depending on its intensity after landfall and how quickly it moves through the region, according to Chuck Watson of Enki Research in Savannah, Georgia, with Panama City taking the hardest hit.

“Michael is definitely shaping up to be a classic hurricane,” Watson said by email. “So the estimates are a bit more stable since you don’t have the stall and wander problem” that made Hurricane Florence hard to calculate.

Agriculture markets, meanwhile, were shrugging off the storm. Prices for cotton, soybean and corn crops fell on Tuesday, as did orange juice futures. “Hurricanes are nearly always a ‘buy the rumor, sell the fact’ scenarios,” Louis Rose, the director of research and analysis a Rose Commodity Group, in Memphis, Tennessee, said by email.

While the panhandle is more sparsely populated than many other areas of Florida, it includes the capital city of Tallahassee, Pensacola and Panama City. The Atlantic has produced 14 named storms this year. They include Florence and Tropical Storm Gordon, which made landfall on the Alabama-Mississippi border last month.

Here’s the latest on the storm’s effects: The Coast Guard Tuesday closed ports at Gulfport and Pascagoula in Mississippi, Mobile in Alabama, and Panama City and Pensacola in Florida, and restricted vessel traffic on the Intracoastal Waterway. Total insured losses for Hurricane Michael should be manageable and have minimal impact on property reinsurance pricing, Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc. analyst Meyer Shields wrote in a note. Click here for Tuesday evening’s storm wrap showing impacts on oil and gas production, platforms and ports.