Searchers find bod­ies in hur­ri­cane-stricken town

Times Colonist - - World - RUSS BYNUM and BREN­DAN FAR­RING­TON

MEX­ICO BEACH, Florida — Searc­hand-res­cue teams be­gan find­ing bod­ies in and around Mex­ico Beach, the ground-zero town nearly oblit­er­ated by Hur­ri­cane Michael, an of­fi­cial said Fri­day as the scale of the storm’s fury be­came ever clearer. But he gave no de­tails on the num­ber of dead.

The death toll across the South stood at 13, not count­ing any vic­tims in Mex­ico Beach.

Mi­ami Fire Chief Joseph Zahral­ban, leader of a search-an­dres­cue unit that went into the flat­tened town, said: “There are in­di­vid­u­als who are de­ceased. We do not have a count, but we are work­ing to iden­tify them.”

Zahral­ban spoke as his team — which in­cluded a dog — was wind­ing down its two-day search of Mex­ico Beach, the town of about 1,000 peo­ple that was nearly wiped off the map when Michael blew ashore there Wed­nes­day with dev­as­tat­ing winds of 250 kilo­me­tres an hour.

Blocks and blocks of homes were de­mol­ished, re­duced to splin­tered lum­ber or con­crete slabs by the most pow­er­ful hur­ri­cane to hit the con­ti­nen­tal U.S. in nearly 50 years.

As the cat­a­strophic dam­age across the Florida Pan­han­dle came into view 48 hours af­ter the hur­ri­cane struck, there was lit­tle doubt the death toll would rise.

How high it might go was un­clear. But author­i­ties scrapped plans to set up a tem­po­rary morgue, sug­gest­ing they had yet to see mass ca­su­al­ties.

State of­fi­cials said that by one count, 285 peo­ple in Mex­ico Beach de­fied manda­tory evac­u­a­tion or­ders and stayed be­hind. Whether any of them got out at some point was un­clear.

Emer­gency of­fi­cials said they have re­ceived thou­sands of calls ask­ing about miss­ing peo­ple. But with cell­phone ser­vice out across vast swaths of the Florida Pan­han­dle, of­fi­cials said it is pos­si­ble that some of those un­ac­counted for are safe and haven’t been able to con­tact friends or fam­ily.

Across the rav­aged re­gion, mean­while, author­i­ties set up dis­tri­bu­tion cen­tres to hand out food and wa­ter to vic­tims. Some sup­plies were brought in by trucks, while oth­ers had to be de­liv­ered by he­li­copter be­cause of de­bris still block­ing roads.

Res­i­dents be­gan to come to grips with the de­struc­tion and face up to the un­cer­tainty that lies ahead.

“I didn’t rec­og­nize noth­ing. Ev­ery­thing’s gone. I didn’t even know our road was our road,” said 25-year-old Tif­fany Marie Plush­nik, an evac­uee who re­turned to find her home in Sandy Creek too dam­aged to live in.

When she went back to the ho­tel where she took shel­ter from the storm, she found out she could no longer stay there ei­ther be­cause of mould. “We’ve got to fig­ure some­thing out. We’re start­ing from scratch, all of us,” Plush­nik said.

U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump an­nounced plans to visit Florida and hard-hit Ge­or­gia early next but didn’t say what day he would ar­rive. “We are with you!” he tweeted. Shell-shocked sur­vivors who barely es­caped with their lives told of ter­ri­fy­ing winds, surg­ing flood­wa­ters and homes crack­ing apart.

Emer­gency of­fi­cials said they had com­pleted an ini­tial “hasty search” of the stricken area, look­ing for the liv­ing or the dead, and were now launch­ing into more care­ful in­spec­tions of ru­ined build­ings.

Gov. Rick Scott said state of­fi­cials still “do not know enough” about the fate of those who stayed be­hind in the re­gion.

“We are not com­pletely done.”

An aerial photo taken Fri­day of Mex­ico Beach, Florida, re­veals the near-oblit­er­a­tion of the town.

An­other aerial photo taken Fri­day shows trees downed by Hur­ri­cane Michael on Tyn­dall Air Force Base, near Mex­ico Beach.

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