Hurricane wreckage scoured for survivors; death toll at 14
SPRINGFIELD, Fla. — The death toll from Hurricane Michael rose to 14 people Friday and was expected to climb as emergency workers searched rubble and the storm’s grim consequences stretched from the Florida panhandle into Virginia.
Rescue teams were in the early stages of combing a region razed by a Category 4 hurricane that flattened blocks, collapsed buildings and left infrastructure crippled. Some of the hardest-hit communities have yet to report any fatalities, and although officials said they hoped they would find survivors, a resigned gloom was setting in throughout the disaster zone.
Dr. Jay Radtke, the medical examiner for some of the areas of most concern, including Panama City and Mexico Beach, said he could not release any information on the number of dead in the six panhandle counties under his jurisdiction. “We are swamped,” he said. “It’s a disaster zone down here.”
Authorities in Virginia said five people had died, including several who had drowned and a firefighter who was responding to an emergency call. Two other people were feared dead.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said two people — a man and a woman — were killed in McDowell County when their car hit a large tree that had fallen on the road. State and local officials previously said a man in the state was killed Thursday when a tree fell on his car in Iredell County.
“We extend our heartfelt sympathy to the loved ones and friends of those killed,” Cooper said in a statement.
Meanwhile, the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency on Friday morning said a second person had died in the state. The agency declined to provide additional details on the death beyond saying it occurred in Wayne County. On Wednesday, an 11-year-old girl, Sarah Radney, was killed when a carport was torn away and was sent hurtling into a modular home in Seminole County.
At least 1.5 million customers were without electricity from Florida to Virginia.
Many health institutions in Florida remained closed, including four hospitals, 13 nursing homes and 14 assisted-living facilities, according to information distributed at a senior federal leadership briefing Friday and shared with The New York Times. The figures were slightly higher than those distributed by Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration. Several dialysis centers also were closed.
President Donald Trump said he will visit Florida and Georgia next week. “People have no idea how hard Hurricane Michael has hit the great state of Georgia,” he said on Twitter.
It has been a tough few weeks for the Carolinas. After thrashing the Florida panhandle, Michael slogged through states still reeling from the effects of Hurricane Florence last month.
Much of the coast of the Florida panhandle, including Mexico Beach and Panama City, was devastated. The area is dotted with small, rural communities, some of them among the poorest in the state.
Most of the people who died in Virginia were drowning victims; another was a firefighter who had responded to a car crash on an interstate highway.
The firefighter, Lt. Brad Clack of the Hanover County Fire-EMS Department, was one of four firefighters struck by their fire engine when a tractor-trailer slammed into it, pushing the vehicle into the group, about 9 p.m. Thursday outside Richmond, according to the Virginia State Police.
Clack and the others were at the scene of a two-vehicle crash on Interstate 295 during the storm. The fire engine’s lights were on, and the roads were slick when the engine sitting on the side of the road was struck by the tractor-trailer, police said. The truck driver suffered serious injuries, police said, and charges were pending.
The other three firefighters were taken to a hospital in serious condition.
One of the drowning victims died in Charlotte County, near the North Carolina border, after a car was swept away on a bridge Thursday night, according to state police. Two other people were in the car, with one rescued and the other missing.
Earlier Thursday, James King Jr., 45, was swept away in his car in floodwaters in Pittsylvania County in southern Virginia around 3:30 p.m. and could not be rescued despite the efforts of sheriff’s deputies, state police said. “The floodwaters were too deep and too swift for them to maintain contact with him,” police said.
And two people were killed in Danville, Va., on Thursday when their cars were swamped in flash flooding. William Lynn Tanksley, 53, died when the car he was in was swept away in fast-moving water around 5 p.m., the Danville Police Department said. A second person, whose identity has not been made public, died around 10:20 p.m. when the person’s car got stuck in high water.
A motorist also was reported missing in Nottoway County. The vehicle was recovered, but the driver had not been found.
As the death toll rose in Virginia, authorities expected more deaths to be reported farther south along the hurricane’s path.
“I expect the fatality count to come up today. I expect it to come up tomorrow, as well, as we get through the debris,” Brock Long, chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Friday in an interview with CNN. “Hopefully it doesn’t rise dramatically, but it is a possibility.”
HORROR AND WONDER
The seaside community of Mexico Beach, where the storm made landfall, was a flattened wreck. Across the small sport-fishing town, piers and docks were destroyed, fishing boats were piled crazily onshore and residents wandered the streets in horror and wonder.
“These were all block and stucco houses — gone,” the former mayor, Tom Bailey, said. “The mother of all bombs doesn’t do any more damage than this.”
Long said emergency responders were focused Friday morning on searchand-rescue efforts in Mexico Beach and other hard-hit areas, including inland communities. Emergency responders were expected to complete all of the “initial” search-andrescue missions by the end of Friday in both Florida and Georgia, he said.
The road to Mexico Beach became passable Thursday morning, less than 24 hours after Michael made landfall, and it became evident that few communities had suffered more. The town of about 2,000 permanent residents swells to as many as 14,000 in July, and is known for having a relaxed feel compared with the brash tourist strips of Panama City Beach or the nearby beach developments of Alys Beach or Seaside.
“So many lives have been changed forever, so many families have lost everything,” Gov. Rick Scott of Florida said. “Homes are gone, businesses are gone. Roads and infrastructure along the storm’s path have been destroyed. This hurricane was an absolute monster.”
Long was visibly frustrated over reports that residents of the panhandle coast had ignored state and federal warnings to evacuate before the hurricane arrived. He said that an estimated 13-foot storm surge, not high winds, had reduced homes to piles of wood and debris.
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.
Across the ravaged region, meanwhile, authorities set up distribution centers to hand out food and water to victims. Some supplies were trucked in, while others had to be delivered by helicopter because of debris still blocking roads.
Long asked for patience, especially in the area around Mexico Beach and Panama City as workers tried to clear streets, safely remove downed power lines, and secure ruptured gas lines.
One challenge has been communication, Long said, and officials are working to allow wireless companies access to the areas to restore cellphone service. It may be some time, he said, before people can return home.
“Bottom line, it was one of the most powerful storms the country has seen since 1851,” he said. “It’s going to be a long time before they can get back.”
WAY OF LIFE SHATTERED
The storm surge in Port St. Joe, Fla., gutted Rex and Nancy Buzzett’s home of 44 years and scattered their other belongings as far as two blocks.
“It busted through the windows, and once it did that, it floats the furniture up,” said Rex Buzzett, a former city commissioner in the Gulf Coast town of 5,000. “The furniture rolls around in there like being in a washing machine and bangs out everywhere, trying to get out. The results are there behind me.”
The Buzzetts returned home Thursday to find the storm had sent about 9 feet of water smashing into their house and their neighbors’
homes, which face the Gulf of Mexico across a narrow coastal highway. Windows shattered and brick walls crumbled, and most everything inside their home came spilling out.
Despite its wingspan — tropical storm-force winds reached out 175 miles and hurricane-force winds 45 miles from the center — Michael largely spared neighboring Apalachicola.
Though just 20 miles farther from the storm’s center, Apalachicola’s historic 19th-century homes survived largely unscathed — though some businesses near the water flooded, tree limbs littered the streets and yards, and a few burly oak trees toppled.
“It uprooted these huge trees, but that big house doesn’t have a speck of damage on it,” Judi Stokowski said as she cruised around Apalachicola on Thursday in the six-seat golf cart she uses for guided tours.
Stokowski’s 120-year-old home escaped damage. Her golf cart weathered Michael outdoors and started right up after the storm passed. Her gift shop, where she sells T-shirts and rubber alligators, wasn’t so fortunate. Clothing, handbags and costume jewelry got soaked by thigh-high storm surge that swamped the business district and left the streets thick with mud.
“It is what it is,” Stokowski said. “I’m just glad my house is all right.”
As for why Apalachiola fared better, meteorologists noted that Port St. Joe was closer to the eye wall and exposed to higher winds. And because of the shape of the coastline and the storm’s track, Apalachicola may have been more protected from the open Gulf.
But after four decades of living on the waterfront, the Buzzetts don’t plan to live anywhere else.
“We’ll rebuild on this spot, but we’ll have to bulldoze everything,” Rex Buzzett said. “We’ll build up higher. But how high?”
Information for this article was contributed by Richard Fausset, Alan Blinder and Matthew Haag of The New York Times; by J. Freedom du Lac, Mark Berman, Dana Hedgpeth and Eli Rosenberg of The Washington Post; and by Russ Bynum, Brendan Farrington, Jay Reeves, Gary Fineout,Tamara Lush,Terry Spencer, Jennifer Kay, Freida Frisaro, Jonathan Drew, Darlene Superville and Seth Borenstein of The Associated Press.
An aerial view Friday shows just a little of the destruction at Mexico Beach, Fla. “The mother of all bombs doesn’t do any more damage than this,” the town’s former mayor, Tom Bailey, said.
Joy Hutchinson (left) is comforted by her daughter Jessica on Friday as she returns to find that her home at Mexico Beach, Fla., was swept away by Hurricane Michael.