The death toll from Hurricane Michael, an unprecedented storm which slammed into the Florida Panhandle near Mexico Beach at Category 4 strength last week, is expected to rise from the latest count of 18 across the states of Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia as search-and-rescue teams scour devastated coastal communities that were still “cutoff and in the dark,” Reuters reported on Saturday morning.
Hundreds are still unaccounted for, Reuters wrote. Searches through Panhandle towns and cities that are littered with rubble are ongoing, and federal officials acknowledged on Friday that some of the worst damage was in places rescuers haven’t been able to search yet:
Rescue teams, hampered by power and telephone outages, were going door-to-door and using cadaver dogs, drones and heavy equipment to hunt for people in the rubble in Mexico Beach and other Florida coastal communities, such as Port St. Joe and Panama City.
“We still haven’t gotten into some of the hardest-hit areas,” said Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on Friday, noting that he expects to see the number of people killed climb.
On Saturday afternoon, Reuters noted that roads had been cleared to allow for wider searches.
Houston-based volunteer service CrowdSource Rescue, whose teams consist mainly of off-duty first responders, rescued people from one mobile home in Panama City where they had been trapped for two days, Reuters wrote. The news agency added that rescuers had accounted for 520 people reported missing or stranded, but that there had been 2,100 such reports in total, with the remainder unaccounted for. FEMA told Reuters it had over 1,700 search and rescue personnel on site.
Satellite photos show that Mexico Beach was nearly wiped off the map entirely, with entire swathes of the community in rubble. Deaths included an 11-year-old killed when a carport crashed through the roof of a garage, a 44-year old man hit by a falling tree in his home, at least four killed by vehicular collisions with other vehicles or debris, and three in Gadsen County whose cause of death was not yet publicly released, per CNN.
As the New York Times reported, Michael remained at Category 3 status as it crossed the border into Georgia, hitting communities far inland like Florida’s Jackson County with incredible force. Three deaths were reported there, with the county’s road department laying in rubble, the sheriff’s office’s roof blown off, and residents fearing weeks ahead without power.
CNN wrote that an estimated 900,000-plus people in seven states remained without power, while farmers in Georgia are reporting widespread crop devastation. In the worst-hit parts of Florida, “Long lines have formed outside fire stations, schools and Salvation Army food trucks as people try to secure anything, from bottled water to ready-to-eat and hot meals,” CNN added.
“Seventy-five percent of our city is not here (destroyed),” Mexico Beach Mayor Al Cathey told CNN, adding he had heard power might not be restored for two months. “There’s not one local business that’s operational.”
“We’ve got guys who have been in the Florida National Guard 10-15 years, and even they recognize the devastation,” Florida guardsman 2nd Lieutenant Scott Mandelberg told USA Today. FEMA spokesperson David Passey told the paper that the agency had handed out 700,000 meals and over one million liters of water, saying their short-term goal was to “get the debris removed from the area so emergency food and water can get in and the local supply chain–grocery stores, hardware stores–can get back in and do their thing.”
“Stuff like power, water, communications and the road infrastructure ... in order to operate modern supply chains, we rely on all of those things,” American Logistics Aid Network executive director Kathy Fulton told NPR. “...There’s significant, not just disruption to those infrastructure, but destruction.”