A WOMAN reclines in a shelter from Hurricane Michael in Panama City, Florida, this week. Reuters
GAINING frightening fury overnight, Hurricane Michael closed in yesterday on the Florida Panhandle with potentially catastrophic winds of 230km/h the most powerful storm on record to menace the stretch of fishing towns, military bases and spring-break beaches.

With more than 375000 people up and down the Gulf Coast warned to clear out, the hurricane's leading edge began lashing the white-sand shoreline with tropical storm-force winds, rain and rising seas before daybreak, hours before Michael's centre was expected to blow ashore.

The unexpected brute quickly sprang from a weekend tropical depression, reaching Category 4 early yesterday as it drew energy from the Gulf of Mexico's warm waters. That was up from a Category 2 on Tuesday afternoon. Rainfall could reach up to 30cm, and the life-threatening storm surge could swell to 4m.

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 today. Forecasters said it would unleash damaging winds and rain all the way into the Carolinas, which are still recovering from Hurricane Florence’s epic flooding.

Several hours ahead of landfall, seawater was already lapping over the docks at Massalina Bayou near downtown Panama City, and knee-deep water was rising against buildings in St Marks, which sits on an inlet south of Tallahassee.

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 warnings to get out. AP