(RNN) - Hurricane Michael, one of the most-intense storms to ever hit the United States, roared ashore early Wednesday afternoon along the Florida Panhandle with 155 mph winds, just two miles per hour shy of Category 5 status.
It was downgraded to a tropical storm early Thursday. It continues to weaken as it moves across south-central Georgia. Flooding is also gradually decreasing along the Gulf Coast, as of 11 p.m. ET Wednesday.
But it continues cutting a path of destruction, bringing heavy rains and damaging winds. It entered Georgia as a Category 3 storm, the first to track into the state in over a century.
Michael is the strongest hurricane to strike the Florida Panhandle on record, and the strongest storm to make landfall in the continental United States since Hurricane Andrew, which struck in 1992.
The death of a child in Seminole County, GA was reported late Wednesday. While officials were not sure how the child had died, they did say it was associated with the storm, according to WALB.
Another death was reported near Greensboro, FL, on Wednesday. The Gadsden County Sheriff’s Office said a man died after a tree fell on a home there, CNN reported.
Nearly 6,700 Floridians are weathering the storm in the 54 shelters set up in the state. Nine Florida counties have enacted curfews to keep people off dangerous roads.
Officials are urging those still in affected areas to avoid getting on the roads and to stay safe indoors.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott said 3,500 soldiers and airmen have been activated for high water search and rescue operations. Nearly 1,000 Florida law enforcement officers are also ready to deploy to impacted areas.
Around 11 p.m., more than 327,000 power outages had been reported in Florida.
Heavy rainfall from Michael is causing life-threatening flash flooding from the Panhandle to the Big Bend region of Florida. It could bring life-threatening floods to parts of southeast Alabama, Georgia, the Carolinas and southeast Virginia.
A tornado watch has been issued for nearly all of Georgia south of Athens, and for north Florida from Tallahassee to Jacksonville, through 2 a.m. ET Thursday.
The National Hurricane Center, along with local officials in impacted areas, are warning residents not to leave their homes, and especially not to venture out into the eye of the storm as it passes.
“The storm is here. It’s not safe to travel across the Panhandle," Gov. Scott said Wednesday. "If you are in a coastal area, do not leave your house. The time to evacuate has come and gone.”
“If you made the choice to stay, seek refuge," he said. "The worst thing you could do is put your family in danger.”
Wednesday night, Scott tweeted: “If you live in impacted coastal communities, DO NOT TRY TO COME HOME TONIGHT. The roads are not clear.”
Scott urged Floridians to stay off the roads in impacted areas so rescue teams could “do their jobs and save lives.” Wednesday night, Scott tweeted that first responders were headed onto those roads to help people affected by the hurricane.
The City of Tallahassee said Wednesday night that “there are in excess of 200 roads blocked by trees,” in the area. The city urged residents to stay sheltered to allow crews “to safely and efficiently assess damage and begin the process of recovery.”
As of 9 p.m., city officials hadn’t received any reports of significant injury.
Earlier Wednesday, Scott tweeted that the state government is “prepared to deploy 1 million gallons of water, 1.5. million Meals Ready-to-Eat and 400,000 pounds of ice to help our families being impacted by the storm."
The Salvation Army also announced they’re sending a mobile feeding kitchen to Panama City to serve the people impacted by the hurricane.
In Wednesday afternoon Facebook Live broadcasts, the director of the NHC, Ken Graham, called Michael “extremely dangerous.”
He warned of downed trees and power outages as the hurricane moves through southwest Georgia and into the middle of the state Wednesday evening.
Graham also warned of heavy rains moving through Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia, which could bring the risk of flash flooding.
Strong storm surges are continuing along the Florida coast for miles inland. Graham said it could take some time for the waters to subside after the winds calm.
Because of flooding, debris and downed power lines, the NHC cautions those in the storm path not to venture outside, especially after nightfall.
On Wednesday evening, tropical-storm force winds were extending outward of 160 miles from the storm center. Hurricane-force winds were extending up to 40 miles from the center.
In its 11 p.m. ET update Wednesday, the NHC said the storm was weakening as it moved across south-central Georgia, continuing to bring damaging winds and a life-threatening storm surge to the Panhandle and catastrophic winds to rural Georgia.
The storm surge levels on the Gulf Coast, however, have begun gradually subsiding, and will continue decreasing along the Florida Panhandle overnight. Winds are also gradually decreasing over the Panhandle, though they’re starting to increase along the Georgia coast.
Michael is about 30 miles south-southwest of Macon, GA, moving northeast at 17 mph, packing maximum-sustained winds of 70 mph.
At 4 p.m. ET, the NHC repeated its warning for everyone in the storm’s path “not to venture out into the relative calm of the eye, as hazardous winds will increase very quickly as the eye passes!"
The NHC called Michael “potentially catastrophic.”
One catastrophic storm in recent memory, Hurricane Katrina, made its second landfall in 2005 as a Category 3 (sustained winds of 125 mph) storm, devastating the Mississippi Gulf Coast and southeast Louisiana, in particular catastrophically flooding New Orleans.
Just a few weeks ago, Hurricane Florence made landfall on Sept. 14 near Wrightsville Beach, NC. The storm had maximum-sustained winds of 90 mph, the NHC said.
Officials worry the storm surge along the Panhandle could be deadly, reaching 14 feet in some areas.
The National Weather Service in Tallahassee had issued extreme wind warnings for parts the Panhandle throughout the day, likening it to a tornado warning.
“Treat these imminent extreme winds as if a tornado was approaching and move immediately to an interior room or shelter,” the NWS warned.
Scott announced Tuesday that 54 shelters were opening across the state in preparation.
In Tallahassee, police warned residents to get inside and stay there.
“Do not get out and drive in the storm,” Tallahassee Police tweeted. “Stay inside after the storm has passed so we can evaluate the safety of our community and identify hazards.”
In nearby Walton County, emergency management suspended its services as the storm approached.
From the White House, President Donald Trump marveled at the expanse of the storm.
“It’s almost the entire size of the Gulf,” he said, flanked by Federal Emergency Management Administrator Brock Long and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.
The president said he will visit the state once the storm has passed, likely Sunday or Monday.
Residents of many Florida counties along the Panhandle and the west coast have been issued mandatory evacuation orders. Other counties have been issued voluntary or phased evacuation orders.
The orders affect at least 2 million people, CNN reports.
Mandatory evacuations are in place for the following Florida counties: Bay, Citrus, Dixie, Franklin, Gadsden, Gulf, Jackson, Jefferson, Okaloosa, Taylor and Wakulla.
Voluntary or phased evacuations are in place for these Florida counties: Calhoun, Hernando, Leon, Levy, Liberty, Madison, Pasco and Washington.
Those in mobile homes or other weak structures in particular were urged to leave. Tolls were suspended in order to help people evacuate.
Ahead of the storm, residents stocked up on food, water and gasoline. Some gas stations in the Panhandle ran out of fuel Tuesday as demand surged, WKMG reported. Officials from AAA said fuel trucks were operating nonstop to keep the stations supplied.
By Monday morning, generators were sold out in many Tallahassee-area stores, according to the Tallahassee Democrat.
Water levels began rising Tuesday.
Michael is expected to cut a path across the Southeast through Thursday night before heading north-eastward.
Widespread power outages, major tree damage and structural damage were predicted for the Panhandle, with some of this damage extending as far as parts of northern Georgia and North and South Carolina, the Weather Channel reports.
These states may also see tornadoes spawn into Thursday.
President Trump approved an emergency declaration for Florida Tuesday, meaning federal aid will be available to the state to assist in hurricane recovery.
Scott first declared a state of emergency Sunday, then expanded it the next day to include 35 counties.
The governors of Alabama and Georgia also declared states of emergency because of the expected effects of the storm on those states.
Tropical storm warnings have been issued from north of Fernandina Beach, FL, to Duck, NC, and the Pamlico and Albemarle Sounds in North Carolina.
A storm surge warning is in effect for Panama City to Keaton Beach in Florida. A storm surge watch is in effect for Ocracoke Inlet, NC, to Duck, NC.
The Florida Panhandle and Big Bend areas, in addition to southern portions of Alabama and Georgia, are expected to receive as much as 12 inches of rain through Friday.
The rest of Georgia, the Carolinas and southern Virginia are expected to receive as much as 8 inches.
The Florida Peninsula, eastern mid-Atlantic and southern New England coast could see as much as 3 inches of rain.
Michael began to weaken after making landfall and as it began moving across the Southeast. It could reach Virginia and Maryland Thursday night or Friday. Forecasters expect Michael to re-emerge over water and head away from the U.S. on Friday.