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After a night of destruction, Hurricane Michael finally weakens to a tropical storm

Jenny Staletovich, David Ovalle and Zachary T. Sampson, Miami Herald on

Published in Weather News

After carving an agonizing path of destruction across the Florida Panhandle, Georgia and southeastern Alabama for nearly 10 hours and killing at least two people, Hurricane Michael finally slowed to a tropical storm at midnight and continued to weaken early Thursday.

Michael roared ashore near Mexico Beach about 1 p.m. central time Wednesday, becoming the most powerful storm to ever strike the Panhandle and the fourth strongest to make landfall in the U.S.

By early Thursday, the ferocious storm's winds had slowed to 50 mph as crossed South Carolina. At 8 a.m., the storm was located about 40 miles west of Columbia, moving at a fast 21 mph, National Hurricane Center forecasters said. The storm should continue weakening, but could regain some strength when it emerges over the Atlantic and becomes a post-tropical storm, they said.

After crashing ashore in Mexico Beach, a quaint low-slung beach town with a population of just 1,200, Michael plowing inland with powerful winds and storm surge. Waters crested rooftops and washed out roads. Parts of U.S. Highway 98, the main east-west road connecting the Panhandle, were impassable.

The smell of natural gas permeated the predawn air amid piles of debris and destroyed homes.

A landscape that once drew vacationers to secluded beaches was littered with refrigerators, toilets and staircases no longer connected to houses. Cars and SUV's were tossed from the highway. Houses were cracked open to reveal sodden furniture and wrecked belongings.

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In Apalachicola about 35 miles to the southeast and just inside the perimeter for hurricane winds, a tidal gauge recorded water at 8.55 feet before 7 p.m. Wednesday. At a boat ramp in Spring Creek, water crested at 7.72 feet.

The toll of the damage was just beginning to be assessed at daybreak.

Michael was blamed for at least two deaths: a man in Gadsden County died when a tree fell and a girl in Seminole County, Georgia. At the Tyndall Air Force Base, about 15 miles northwest of Mexico Beach, the monster storm tossed over trucks and peeled back the roof of a massive airplane hangar. Fighter planes had been moved to Ohio earlier in the week.

Panama City was a war zone, with windows blasted out and streets littered with debris.

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