'Changed Forever': Florida Panhandle devastated by Michael
Tom Koziol walks through the debris left in a street next to his home after Hurricane Michael passed through the area on October 11, 2018 in Mexico Beach, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
PANAMA CITY, Fla. (AP) - At least 11 deaths have been blamed on Michael, the most powerful hurricane to hit the continental U.S. in over 50 years.
The sheriff's office in Gadsden County near Tallahassee says it "can now confirm 4 storm-related fatalities following Hurricane Michael," all of which happened "in relation to or occurred during the storm." County officials say they're not releasing names or other details yet while families are notified.
One of those deaths would be a man killed by a falling tree. An 11-year-old girl in Georgia also died when Michael's winds picked up a carport and dropped it through the roof of her grandparents' home. A driver in North Carolina was killed when a tree fell on his car.
By early Friday it wasn't nearly over yet: a tropical storm long after Wednesday's landfall, Michael stubbornly kept up its punch while barreling over land toward an expected exit across the open Atlantic. Forecasters say the storm has already begun shedding its tropical characteristics but will take on a new chapter as a powerful extratropical storm with gale force winds on its trek out to sea.
An official leading search-and-rescue efforts in one of the Florida communities hit hardest by Hurricane Michael says searchers have found bodies.
Joseph Zahralban is Miami's fire chief. On Friday, he was in Mexico Beach on the Gulf Coast acting as a task force leader for a search-and-rescue unit. He told The Associated Press that searchers found "individuals who are deceased" among the devastation in Mexico Beach and surrounding Bay County.
He says officials don't yet have a count of the dead and are working to ID them. He gave no further details. Officials in Panama City told FOX 13 there were still around 250 people missing in the hardest hit areas.
Zahralban says teams on their first sweep of Mexico Beach on Thursday rescued some people with minor injuries and helped others who rode out the storm and found themselves with no way to leave.
More than 900,000 homes and businesses in Florida, Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas were without power. Video from lineman Brian Kannada showed thousands of power trucks staged at the Pensacola fairgrounds until Hurricane Michael passed.
Kannada said he is a lineman from Oxford, Mississippi, and has been in the power industry since 1998. He posted the video Thursday morning, writing, "Panama City we are on our way!"
The full extent of Michael's fury was only slowly becoming clear, with some of the hardest-hit areas difficult to reach with roads blocked by debris or water. An 80-mile (130-kilometer) stretch of Interstate 10, the main east-west route, was closed.
Video from a drone revealed some of the worst damage in Mexico Beach, where the hurricane crashed ashore Wednesday as a Category 4 monster with 155 mph (250 kph) winds and a storm surge of 9 feet (2.7 meters).
Entire blocks of homes near the beach were obliterated, leaving concrete slabs in the sand. Rows and rows of other homes were rendered piles of splintered lumber. Entire roofs were torn away in the town of about 1,000 people, now a scene of utter devastation.
State officials said 285 people in Mexico Beach had defied a mandatory evacuation order ahead of Michael. More than 375,000 people up and down the Gulf Coast were ordered or urged to clear out as Michael closed in. But emergency authorities lamented that many ignored the warnings.
National Guard troops made their way into the ground-zero town and found 20 survivors Wednesday night, and more rescue crews arrived Thursday. But the fate of many residents was unknown.
Mishelle McPherson and her ex-husband searched for the elderly mother of a friend. The woman lived in a small cinderblock house about 150 yards (meters) from the Gulf and thought she would be OK. The home was found smashed, with no sign of the woman.
"Do you think her body would be here? Do you think it would have floated away?" McPherson asked.
Linda Marquardt, 67, rode out the storm with her husband at their home in Mexico Beach. When the house filled with storm surge water, they fled upstairs. "All of my furniture was floating," she said. "''A river just started coming down the road. It was awful, and now there's just nothing left."
As thousands of National Guard troops, law enforcement officers and medical teams spread out, the governor pleaded with people in the devastated areas to stay away because of hazards such as fallen trees and power lines.
"I know you just want to go home. You want to check on things and begin the recovery process," Scott said. But "we have to make sure things are safe."