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Extreme weather

Search teams comb debris for victims of Hurricane Michael as death toll expected to rise

About 1.5 million homes and businesses were without power from Florida to Virginia early on Friday, following the arrival of the hurricane, which continued inland as a dangerous storm

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 October, 2018, 11:15pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 October, 2018, 5:39am

Rescuers are using heavy equipment to clear debris in the Florida Panhandle towns hit hardest by Hurricane Michael, searching for survivors amid expectations that the death toll of 14 from the powerful storm likely will climb.

So far, no counties along the devastated northwest Florida coast have reported deaths related to the storm. That could change, as efforts to assess damage and look for casualties in the worst-hit communities have been hampered by downed utility lines and roads blocked by debris and fallen trees.

“I think you’re going to see it climb,” Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Brock Long said of the death count at a news conference. “We still haven’t gotten into some of the hardest-hit areas.”

Teams from FEMA used dogs, drones and global positioning satellites in the search.

Michael charged ashore on Wednesday near the small Florida Panhandle town of Mexico Beach as one of the most powerful storms in US history, with top sustained winds of 155 miles per hour (250km per hour). It pushed a wall of seawater inland and caused widespread flooding.

Many of the houses in Mexico Beach were reduced to naked concrete foundations or piles of debris.

A Mexico Beach resident who rode out the hurricane described the impact of the storm surge to CNN.

“When the water came in houses started floating,” said the man identified as Scott. “We had furniture in our house that wasn’t even our furniture. The surge had brought stuff in.

“There’s nothing left here any more,” he said of the town. “Our lives are gone here. All the stores, all the restaurants, everything.

“It’s hard to grasp,” he said. “This was never in our imagination.”

Although weaker as it pushed over the southeastern United States, the storm carried high winds and delivered drenching rains to Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia. It killed at least 12 people in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia, officials said.

By late Friday afternoon, authorities in North Carolina and Georgia confirmed additional deaths in those states, pushing the number of fatalities linked to the storm to at least 14 people.

In North Carolina, a 38-year-old man was killed Thursday afternoon shortly before 1pm in Iredell County, north of Charlotte, when a tree fell on the vehicle he was driving, according to David Souther, the county’s fire marshal.

Death toll rises as flattened Florida Panhandle picks up the pieces as powerful storm Michael moves northeast

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

In Virginia, the remnants of the hurricane swept away four people in floodwaters. A firefighter also was killed when hit by a truck as he was trying to help an accident victim, The Washington Post reported.

About 1.5 million homes and businesses were without power from Florida to Virginia early on Friday, according to utility companies.

It could be weeks before power is restored to the most damaged parts of Florida, such as Panama City.

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Long urged communities such as Mexico Beach, where many homes were obliterated by 12 to 14 feet (3.7 to 4.3 metres) of storm surge, to rebuild to withstand future storms.

“It’s OK if you want to live on the coast or on top of a mountain that sees wildfires or whatever but you have to build to a higher standard,” he said. “If we’re going to rebuild, do it right.”

By early Friday morning the remnants of Michael had moved into the Atlantic Ocean northeast of Norfolk, Virginia, the National Hurricane Centre said.

The storm, which came ashore as a Category 4 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale, tore apart entire neighbourhoods in the Panhandle.

The number of people in emergency shelters was expected to swell to 20,000 across five states by Friday, said Brad Kieserman of the American Red Cross. The Coast Guard reported rescuing 129 people.

Michael severely damaged cotton, timber, pecan and peanut crops, causing estimated liabilities as high as US$1.9 billion and affecting up to 3.7 million crop acres (1.5 million hectares), said Brad Rippey, a meteorologist for the US Agriculture Department.

Michael also disrupted energy operations in the US Gulf of Mexico as it approached land, cutting crude oil production by more than 40 per cent and natural gas output by nearly a third as offshore platforms were evacuated.

It was the third strongest storm on record to hit the continental United States, behind only Hurricane Camille on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 1969 and the Labour Day hurricane of 1935 in the Florida Keys.