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story.lead_photo.caption An aerial image from video Thursday shows some of the devastation at Mexico Beach, Fla., after a direct hit by Hurricane Michael that produced 155 mph winds and a storm surge of 9 feet.

PANAMA CITY, Fla. -- The devastation inflicted by Hurricane Michael came into focus Thursday with rows upon rows of homes found smashed to pieces, as rescue crews started making their way into the stricken areas in hopes of accounting for hundreds of people who didn't evacuate before the storm.

At least six deaths were blamed on Michael, the most powerful hurricane to hit the continental U.S. in more than 50 years. It was downgraded to a tropical storm by Thursday, but still it produced flash flooding in North Carolina and Virginia, soaking areas recovering from Hurricane Florence.

Under a blue sky Thursday, families living along the Florida panhandle emerged from darkened shelters and hotels to a landscape of shattered buildings, beeping security alarms, wailing sirens and hovering helicopters.

Gov. Rick Scott said the panhandle woke up to "unimaginable destruction."

"So many lives have been changed forever. So many families have lost everything," he said.

The full extent of Michael is slowly becoming clear, with some of the hardest-hit areas difficult to reach because roads are blocked by debris or water. An 80-mile stretch of Interstate 10, the main east-west route along the panhandle, was closed Thursday.

Gallery: Hurricane Michael

Some of the worst damage was in Mexico Beach, where the hurricane crashed ashore Wednesday as a Category 4 storm with 155 mph winds and a storm surge of 9 feet. Video from a drone revealed widespread devastation across the town that had about 1,000 residents.

Entire blocks of homes near the beach were obliterated, reduced to nothing but concrete slabs in the sand. Rows and rows of other homes were turned into piles of splintered lumber or were crumpled and slumped at odd angles. Entire roofs were torn away and dropped onto a roadway.

State officials said 285 people in Mexico Beach had ignored a mandatory evacuation order ahead of the storm.

National Guard troops made their way into the town Wednesday night and found 20 survivors, and more rescue crews were pushing into the area Thursday, with the fate of many residents unknown.

Mishelle McPherson and her ex-husband searched for the elderly mother of a friend. The woman lived in a small cinder-block house about 150 yards from the Gulf and thought she would be OK during the storm. 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.

An American flag waves over what’s left of a neighborhood at Mexico Beach.
An American flag waves over what’s left of a neighborhood at Mexico Beach.

As thousands of National Guard troops, law enforcement officers and medical teams fanned out, the governor pleaded with people from the devastated areas to stay away for now because of hazards that include 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."

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said he had heard from local authorities who described extensive damage. "These are not people prone to hyperbole," Rubio said on CNN. "Panama City is catastrophic damage. Someone told me, 'Mexico Beach is gone.'"

The Coast Guard said it rescued at least 27 people before and after the hurricane moved ashore, mostly from homes along the Florida coastline, and was searching for more victims.

Among those taken to safety were nine people rescued by helicopter from a bathroom at their home in hard-hit Panama City after their roof collapsed, Petty Officer 3rd Class Ronald Hodges said.

More than 900,000 homes and businesses in Florida, Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas were without power Thursday evening.

In Panama City, most homes were still standing, but no property was left undamaged. Downed power lines lay nearly everywhere. Roofs had been peeled off and carried away. Aluminum siding was shredded to ribbons. Homes were split open by fallen trees.

A search- and-rescue team steps through smashed homes and debris looking for survivors. Other teams were working at similar scenes of destruction across the Florida panhandle.
A search- and-rescue team steps through smashed homes and debris looking for survivors. Other teams were working at similar scenes of destruction across the Florida panhandle.

Hundreds of cars had broken windows. Twisted street signs lay on the ground. Pine trees were stripped and snapped off at about 20 feet high.

In nearby Panama City Beach, Bay County Sheriff Tommy Ford reported widespread looting of homes and businesses. He imposed a curfew and asked for 50 members of the National Guard to provide protection.

The hurricane also damaged hospitals and nursing homes in the Panama City area, and officials worked to evacuate hundreds of patients. The damage at Bay Medical Sacred Heart included blown-out windows, a cracked exterior wall and a roof collapse in a maintenance building. No patients were hurt, the hospital said.

The state mental hospital in Chattahoochee, which has a section for the criminally insane, was cut off by land, and food and supplies were being flown in, authorities said.

Michael pummeled Tyndall Air Force Base, near Panama City, causing "widespread roof damage" to nearly every home and leaving the base closed until further notice, officials said.

"At this point, Tyndall residents and evacuated personnel should remain at their safe location," said Col. Brian Laidlaw, 325th Fighter Wing commander. "We are actively developing plans to reunite families and plan to provide safe passage back to base housing."

In a statement, officials said the "catastrophic" storm delivered a direct hit to the base, "bringing down trees and power lines, ripping roofs off buildings and causing significant structural damage."

Winds topping 130 mph ripped up a display of an F-15 fighter jet at the base entrance, tearing it from its foundation, pitching it into the air and tipping it upside down. No injuries had been reported as of late Thursday, the base said, but the condition of Tyndall's runway is not yet known.

Tyndall's mandatory evacuation order was issued Monday, and it remains in effect. The 600 families who live on base were offered space in local shelters.

"Initial assessments of the damage at Tyndall Air Force Base have identified severe damage to the base infrastructure," according to an Air Force official. "There is no power, water or sewer service to the base at this time. All personnel assigned to ride out the storm are accounted for with no injuries. The Air Force is working to conduct aerial surveillance of the damage, to clear a route to the base and to provide security, potable water, latrines and communication equipment. The base will remain closed, and Airmen assigned to Tyndall should not plan to return at this time."

Authorities said Thursday that they have linked at least six deaths in Florida, Georgia and North Carolina to the storm.

In Florida, the Gadsden County sheriff's office reported four deaths. A spokesman said one man was killed when a tree crashed through the roof of his home in Greensboro. The sheriff's office said it also had three other "storm-related fatalities following Hurricane Michael," although it did not immediately release further information.

In North Carolina, a 38-year-old man was killed Thursday afternoon in Iredell County when a tree fell on the vehicle he was driving, according to David Souther, the county's fire marshal.

And in Georgia, officials in Seminole County said early Thursday that an 11-year-old girl in a mobile home was killed by a metal carport that was thrown into the air by Michael's gusting winds.

Brock Long, the Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator, said early Thursday that "search and rescue is where we are hyper-focused this morning." He warned in an appearance on CNN that "those numbers could climb as search-and-rescue teams get out."

ITS MOVE INLAND

As the storm made its way inland, it caused havoc in Georgia, spinning off possible tornadoes and taking down power lines and trees. Forecasters said it could drop up to 7 inches of rain over the Carolinas and Virginia before pushing out to sea Thursday night.

In North Carolina's mountains, motorists had to be rescued from cars trapped by high water.

"For North Carolina, Michael isn't as bad as Florence, but it adds unwelcome insult to injury, so we must be on alert," Gov. Roy Cooper said.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam on Thursday declared a state of emergency in advance of the storm, warning people in the commonwealth to get ready for a sizable hit from the former hurricane.

Florida emergency workers Patricia Cantrell (left) and Ana Kaufmann survey the damage Thursday on the western edge of Mexico Beach, Fla.
Florida emergency workers Patricia Cantrell (left) and Ana Kaufmann survey the damage Thursday on the western edge of Mexico Beach, Fla.

"I want to urge all Virginians to prepare for the serious possibility of flash floods, tropical storm force winds, tornadoes and power outages," Northam said in a statement.

In his executive order, Northam said he was activating the state's emergency operations center as well as the Virginia National Guard.

Northam's announcement came after officials in the five states already hit by Michael -- Florida, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina and North Carolina -- all declared emergencies.

Much of Virginia was under tornado watches and flash flood watches Thursday, with rainfall of up to 7 inches predicted in some parts of the state, a total that could lead to flooding.

President Donald Trump approved disaster requests for Georgia and Florida stemming from the hurricane, moves that authorize federal authorities to coordinate response efforts while also opening up federal funding to officials in those areas.

The White House said Trump declared a major disaster in Florida, while FEMA said he had signed an emergency declaration for Georgia. In remarks Thursday, Trump spoke about the hurricane, noting that it had swept through the area quickly.

"The big problem with this hurricane was the tremendous power, and fortunately it was very fast," he said Thursday. "It went through Florida very, very quickly."

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 people ignored the warnings.

A pedestrian battles the wind and the rain Thursday in Winston-Salem, N.C., as the remnants of Hurricane Michael move up the East Coast, producing flooding in areas still recovering from Hurricane Florence.
A pedestrian battles the wind and the rain Thursday in Winston-Salem, N.C., as the remnants of Hurricane Michael move up the East Coast, producing flooding in areas still recovering from Hurricane Florence.

"Why people didn't evacuate is something we should be studying," said Craig Fugate, former director of FEMA and a former Florida state emergency management chief. "Is there more the government can do? But we ask that every time."

Information for this article was contributed by Jay Reeves, Brendan Farrington, Tamara Lush, Gary Fineout, Terry Spencer, Jennifer Kay, Freida Frisaro, Russ Bynum, Jonathan Drew and Seth Borenstein of The Associated Press; by Mark Berman, Antonia Noori Farzan, Eli Rosenberg and J. Freedom du Lac of The Washington Post; and by Richard Fausset, Patricia Mazzei and Alan Blinder of The New York Times.

A Section on 10/12/2018

Print Headline: Florida panhandle towns flattened by Hurricane Michael; crews search for survivors

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