Searchers find bodies in hurricane-stricken town
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.