UPDATE: HURRICANE Michael has made landfall in Florida as the strongest hurricane to hit the United States in almost 30 years.

The vicious storm slammed into the Florida Panhandle with potentially catastrophic winds of up to 249km/h, in what will be the third strongest storm in the country's history.

"This is the worst storm that our Florida Panhandle has seen in a century," Florida Governor Rick Scott warned locals.

 

Tuesday's satellite images of the hurricane appeared to warn that it would become a Category 4 storm before its eye hits the region, appearing to show a sinister smirking skull face:

Meteorologists noted the skull's presence as the eye begins to clear out through the surrounding storm clouds.

According to the National Hurricane Centre, it's still possible for Michael to gain more strength after making landfall.

"We looked at the records back to 1851," the hurricane centre's director Ken Graham told CBS News.

"We can't find one that was a Category 4 hitting the Panhandle, so you're talking about just dangerous winds."

Michael blew ashore near Mexico Beach, a tourist town about midway along the Panhandle, a lightly populated, 320km stretch of white sand beach resorts, fishing towns and military bases.

Its winds roaring, it battered the coastline with sideways rain, powerful gusts and crashing waves, swamped streets, bent trees, stripped away limbs and leaves, and sent building debris flying. Explosions apparently caused by transformers could be heard.

"The window to evacuate has come to a close," Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Brock Long said.

The meteorological brute quickly sprang from a weekend tropical depression, becoming a furious Category 4 by early Wednesday, up from a Category 2 less than a day earlier. It was the most powerful hurricane on record to hit the Panhandle.

"I've had to take antacids - I'm so sick to my stomach today because of this impending catastrophe," National Hurricane Centre scientist Eric Blake tweeted as the storm - drawing energy from the Gulf's unusually warm, 28C water - grew more frightening.

Weather experts have sent out grim warnings to anyone who could be in the storm's path, with Mr Graham saying: "If they tell you to leave, you have to leave."

 

EARLIER: HURRICANE Michael was today upgraded to a Category 4 storm with residents in Florida warned of deadly flash floods and 225 km/h winds.

The Sun reports the National Hurricane Centre described it as "extremely dangerous" as it made landfall about 1.40pm local time (4:40am AEDT) with the Weather Channel calling it the strongest hurricane to hit the region since records began.

The "monstrous" storm is tipped to cause major damage with emergency chiefs warning more than 370,000 people to evacuate their homes.

Hurricane Michael is the strongest hurricane to ever hit the Florida Panhandle since records began in 1851, according to Weather.com.

Emily Hindle lies on the floor at an evacuation shelter set up at Rutherford High School, in advance of Hurricane Michael, which is expected to make landfall today, in Panama City Beach, Florida.  Picture:  AP
Emily Hindle lies on the floor at an evacuation shelter set up at Rutherford High School, in advance of Hurricane Michael, which is expected to make landfall today, in Panama City Beach, Florida. Picture: AP

Only three major hurricanes Category 3 or higher have struck the Panhandle since 1950: Eloise in 1975, Opal in 1995 and Dennis in 2005.

The area is a 322-kilometre stretch Florida lying between Alabama on the north west, Georgia on the north east and the Gulf of Mexico to the south.

The National Weather Service in Tallahassee, Florida, warned: "A potentially catastrophic event is developing. Locations may be uninhabitable for weeks or months."

Florida Governor Rick Scott tweeted: "The time to evacuate has come and gone … SEEK REFUGE IMMEDIATELY."

Senator Bill Nelson said a "wall of water" could cause major destruction along vulnerable areas of the Panhandle.

"Don't think that you can ride this out if you're in a low-lying area," he said on CNN.

Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan bluntly advised those residents choosing stay that rescuers won't be able to reach them.

"If you decide to stay in your home and a tree falls on your house or the storm surge catches you and you're now calling for help, there's no one that can respond to help you," he said.

Franklin County Sheriff A.J. Smith near the vulnerable coast said his deputies had gone door to door in some places urging people to evacuate.

"We have done everything we can as far as getting the word out," he said. "Hopefully more people will leave."

Weather experts sent out similar grim warnings with National

The St. Marks River overflows into the city of St. Marks, Florida, ahead of Hurricane Michael.  Picture:  AP
The St. Marks River overflows into the city of St. Marks, Florida, ahead of Hurricane Michael. Picture: AP

Hurricane Centre Director Ken Graham saying: "If they tell you to leave, you have to leave."

Thousands have been warned to evacuate along Florida's coast, where schools and state offices are to remain shut this week.

Jason McDonald, of Panama City was driving with his wife and two young children, aged five and seven, to North Alabama.

He said: "We don't know if it's going to wipe out our house or not. We want to get them out of the way."

Others have decided to stay put despite the "life-threatening" storm surge because of how much it costs to evacuate.

Aja Kemp said she spent more than $800 last year when her and family evacuated for Hurricane Irma.

She said: "I just can't bring myself to spend that much money.

"We've got supplies to last us a week. Plenty of water. I made sure we've got clean clothes. We got everything tied down."

 

An unidentified person takes pictures of the surf and fishing pier on Okaloosa Island in Fort Walton Beach, Florida.  Picture:  AP
An unidentified person takes pictures of the surf and fishing pier on Okaloosa Island in Fort Walton Beach, Florida. Picture: AP

One county in Florida cannot open their shelters because they can only withstand a Category 2 hurricane.

Shelters in Wakulla County is unable to provide protection for the residents that have been ordered to leave.

This satellite image shows Hurricane Michael, centre, in the Gulf of Mexico. Picture:  NOAA via AP
This satellite image shows Hurricane Michael, centre, in the Gulf of Mexico. Picture: NOAA via AP

Residents were being taken by van to the neighbouring Leon County.

More than 482 kilometres of coastline are currently under threat, the National Weather Service has said.

Some regions of the US may see 30cm of rain, and storm surges of up to 3.6m.

At least 13 people have already been reported killed in Central America as a result of the massive storm.

 

 

This article originally appeared in The Sun and is republished here with permission

National Hurricane Centre branch chief Michael Brennan monitors the status of Hurricane Michael.  Picture:  AP
National Hurricane Centre branch chief Michael Brennan monitors the status of Hurricane Michael. Picture: AP

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