RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Officials in Florida and Georgia are surveying the damage caused by a historically powerful storm. Hurricane Michael struck the Florida Panhandle yesterday as a Category 4 storm, one of the strongest to hit the region since records began being kept in the mid-19th century. It tore through the Panhandle into Georgia, ripping trees from the ground and roofs from homes. It has now been downgraded to a tropical storm at this point, but that still means a lot of rain and wind as it moves north and east into the Carolinas.
Joining us now, NPR's Tom Gjelten from Lumberton, N.C. Tom, good morning.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.
MARTIN: Before we get to the conditions where you are, what can you tell us about the extent of the damage in the Florida Panhandle?
GJELTEN: Well, from what I've seen - you said historically powerful. It appears that the impact of the hurricane was more like a bomb than a hurricane. I mean, buildings literally exploded from the force of the wind. So it's just - I mean, around Panama City, Fla., the pictures that we've seen are just spectacular. I mean, it was truly powerful.
MARTIN: It is now headed your way into the Carolinas. What is the situation right now?
GJELTEN: Well, the folks here have set up an emergency operations center. They know something about what it's like to be hit by a hurricane because they just got hit by Hurricane Florence...
GJELTEN: ...Just a month ago. The storm is expected - the full brunt of the storm is expected to hit around 2 p.m. today. People here have been told to expect up to 6 inches of rain and also be prepared for the possibility of tornadoes. Winds will be gusting to 50 miles an hour - nothing like what you saw in Florida, but enough to do damage here, considering that this is already a totally waterlogged region.
Very extensive flooding here in the Lumberton area and across North Carolina from Hurricane Florence. Many, many homes were severely damaged. I was driving around last night. The number of homes that are still without - unoccupied, without - not being able to be inhabited...
GJELTEN: ...Because of the damage. They're going to really have a hard time recovering from this - much harder than they would have otherwise.
MARTIN: Right. And as you note, that ground is waterlogged, so there's nowhere, really, for that extra rain to go.
GJELTEN: You know, Rachel, schools here have been closed since September 11, and they have not reopened. I spoke to the superintendent yesterday. She told me she had hoped to have the schools open today, but yesterday she sent out a notice to parents that schools are going to be closed at least until next Monday. This is now in the fifth week of no school.
GJELTEN: Parents are going nuts.
MARTIN: Right. NPR's Tom Gjelten reporting from Lumberton, N.C. Thanks, Tom.
GJELTEN: You bet.
MARTIN: With us now, Ken Graham. He's the director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Hurricane Center. He joins me from Miami, Fla., where he's been tracking all this. Ken, good morning.
KEN GRAHAM: Good morning, Rachel.
MARTIN: What can you tell us about the conditions on Florida's Gulf Coast right now?
GRAHAM: You know, just a devastating hurricane. You know, real historic. I mean, since 1851, our records don't show a Category 4 making landfall in the Florida Panhandle, so a historic storm, catastrophic damage. You know, you just have the winds associated with such a strong storm.
But not only that, you have the storm surge. I mean, you know, predicting the potential to 9 to 14 feet of inundation in some areas. And that's as - that's destructive, too. And the waves are even on top of that. So the combination of the rain, the winds and the storm surge, it has every aspect of all the impacts we expect from a strong hurricane.
MARTIN: Right. So you mentioned the storm surge. I mean, are there active threats right now to the people who didn't evacuate who are still in the areas that were hardest hit?
GRAHAM: Rachel, what happens is all that water is forced in because the winds are so strong with the hurricane. And, you know, we were talking about this the last three days and how far inland some of that storm surge goes. It finds every low spot, so rivers that normally flow out to the Gulf, like the Apalachicola River - they've actually reversed. That water goes backward. It can go 10, 15 miles inland. So once it's forced in with the wind, now it has to flow out, and that takes time. So those water levels are going to stay high for a little while.
MARTIN: This storm moved quicker than Hurricane Florence. I mean, part of the devastation of that storm is that it was so slow-moving. But this one - it seemed to come on so fast. Why was that?
GRAHAM: You know, it's interesting to look at these hurricanes because they're all so different. And that's why we try to - we spend so much time here at the Hurricane Center and talking about those impacts because they're all completely different. So Florence stalled like a Harvey - right? - in Texas. And you get a Florence that, when they stall, they could bring an amazing amount of rain - flooding, dangerous, life-threatening rain.
This one was fast, so a different impact with a fast storm is, you know, you start getting some of those hurricane forces inland. We had a hurricane in southwest Georgia last night, which is staggering. And that caused a lot of damage as well. The other part of this equation is interesting, too. When you have a Florence and you have storms that come across the Atlantic, you can see them for five, six, seven days.
GRAHAM: When they - this time of year, typical for October, when they form in the Caribbean, there's just not a lot of real estate. So once they form and they start moving, especially with Michael moving, you know, during the lifecycle, anywhere from 12 to 15 miles an hour, they get here quick. So those timelines change based on where they form.
MARTIN: You don't have a lot of time to prepare.
MARTIN: Not as much. As we mentioned, this thing is not over. It's been downgraded to a tropical storm, but it's headed toward the Carolinas. How much of a threat does it pose to cities still in its path?
GRAHAM: You know, looking at the radar here, you know, we still have a strong circulation around it. We're still - think of this. We're still a tropical storm, even after all this time - 50-mile-an-hour winds around the core. So around those rain bands, you can definitely still get heavy rain, flooding rain. You can get tornadoes in those rain bands.
And the other part that always worries me is, you know, the falling trees as well because once you saturate that soil, and we're still talking 50-mile-an-hour winds, that'll knock down trees and power lines. So yeah. The danger's still not over. People still have to really watch Michael as we move across the Carolinas.
MARTIN: All right, Ken Graham. He is the director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Hurricane Center. We reached him from Miami, Fla. Ken, thanks so much. We appreciate it.
GRAHAM: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.