Rescue teams in the early stages of combing a region razed by a Category 4 hurricane that flattened blocks, collapsed buildings and left infrastructure crippled
First responders and residents walk along a main street following Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Florida.
PANAMA CITY, Fla: Hurricane Michael’s death toll rose to 11 on Friday and was expected to climb higher 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.
“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 in an interview with CNN on Friday. “Hopefully it doesn’t rise dramatically, but it is a possibility.”
The Virginia Department of Emergency Management said Friday morning that five people in the state had died from the storm, including four who had drowned and a firefighter who was responding to an emergency call.
Four deaths occurred in Gadsden County, west of Tallahassee, according to Lt. Anglie Hightower, a spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office. The victims included a man who died when a tree crashed down on his home in Greensboro.
An 11-year-old girl, Sarah Radney, was killed Wednesday when a carport was torn away and was sent hurtling into a modular home in Seminole County, Georgia.
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 left in ruins. The area is dotted with small, rural communities, some of them among the poorest in the state.
In Virginia, a firefighter is among five victims
Four of the people who died in Virginia were drowning victims, while the fifth 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 around 9pm on Thursday outside Richmond, according to the Virginia State Police. The crash pushed the fire truck into the firefighters.
Clack was at the scene of a two-vehicle crash on Interstate 295 during the storm. While the fire engine’s lights were on, the roads were slick when it was struck by the tractor-trailer on the side of the road, Virginia State Police said. The driver of the tractor-trailer suffered serious injuries, state police said, and charges were pending.
The other three firefighters were taken to a hospital in serious condition, state police said.
Two of the drowning victims died in Charlotte County, near the North Carolina border, after their car was swept away on a bridge Thursday night, according to state police. Authorities were able to rescue a third person who was also in the car.
Earlier Thursday, James King Jr., 45, was swept away in his car in floodwaters in Pittsylvania County in southern Virginia around 3:30pm 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,” state police said.
Mexico Beach was left in ruins
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 on shore and townspeople 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.”
In Florida, 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. Known for its sport fishing, the city of about 2,000 permanent residents swells to as many as 14,000 in July, and is known for having a relaxed, small-town feel compared with the brash tourist strips of Panama City Beach or the tony 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, the FEMA administrator, was visibly frustrated over reports that residents of the Panhandle coast, particularly in Mexico Beach, 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.
The homes that were still intact, at least partially, were likely built higher off the ground, allowing the rushing ocean to pass underneath, Long said. “There’s a lesson here about building codes.”
“I, like anybody, love the ocean, and I love the mountains,” Long added. “But when you want to live in these areas, hazards come with them.”
An estimate of up to $4.5 billion in losses
Hurricane Michael could inflict wind and storm-surge losses of up to $4.5 billion, according to CoreLogic, a data-analytics company in Irvine, California, that bases its estimates on the replacement cost of houses and other structures in the paths of major storms before they hit.
Sharper estimates are expected in the coming weeks, as homeowners report their actual losses to insurers. Property insurers in Florida tend to be younger, smaller companies than those elsewhere, but analysts said they appeared adequately cushioned with reinsurance and were expected to bounce back.
CoreLogic’s estimate does not include the cost of flood damage, which is borne by the National Flood Insurance Program, operated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Standard homeowners’ policies do not cover flood damage, and people who live on designated floodplains are required to buy $250,000 worth of coverage from the federal program. The requirement has been hard to enforce, though, and many people who should have the insurance do not.
A fighter jet flipped and hangars were shredded
The eye of the storm cut directly over Tyndall Air Force Base, which sits on a narrow spit of land that juts into the Gulf of Mexico, about a dozen miles south of Panama City. Trees bent in the howling wind, then splintered. Stormproof roofs only a few months old peeled like old paint and were scraped away by the gale. An F-15 fighter jet on display at the base entrance was ripped from its foundation and pitched onto its back amid twisted flagpoles and uprooted trees.
When it was over, the base lay in ruins, amid what the Air Force called “widespread catastrophic damage.” There were no reported injuries, in part because nearly all personnel had been ordered to leave in advance of the Category 4 hurricane’s landfall. Commanders still sifting through mounds of wreckage could not say when evacuation orders would be lifted.