The death toll from Hurricane Michael has risen to at least 17 with fears it would continue to climb Saturday as search-and-rescue teams scour the debris of the Florida town that bore the brunt of the monster storm.
“Mexico Beach is devastated,” Florida Governor Rick Scott said of the town where Michael made landfall as a Category 4 storm on Wednesday.
“It’s like a bomb went off,” Scott said as he toured the town of 1,000 people on the Gulf of Mexico.
“It’s like a war zone.” Rescue teams were using sniffer dogs in Mexico Beach on Friday to search for victims who may be buried under the rubble in the debris-strewn community.
US media later reported one death in the town — an elderly man found alone, according to Mayor Al Cathey.
Officials said his body was found hundreds of yards from his home.
Brock Long, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), warned that he expected the toll to rise.
“I hope we don’t see it climb dramatically but I have reasons to believe we still haven’t got into some of the hardest hit areas,” he said.
Dozens of structures in Mexico Beach — homes, shops and restaurants — were lifted off their foundations by storm surge and 155 miles per hour (250 kph) winds and moved hundreds of feet inland or smashed to bits.
“Very few people live to tell what it’s like to experience storm surge,” Long said.
“Storm surge causes the most amount of loss of life.”
State officials said Mexico Beach was under mandatory evacuation orders but some residents decided to stay and try to ride out the storm.
“You hope that somehow at the last minute a bunch of people got up and left or went somewhere else,” Florida Senator Marco Rubio told CNN.
Bob Tenbrunson, a Mexico Beach retiree, rode out the storm at his daughter’s house in nearby Panama City and returned to survey the damage to his home.
“I was going to stay here until it turned to a Cat 4,” he said. “So I followed the mandatory evacuation order and left with my wife.
“Luckily we did not get a surge,” Tenbrunson said of his home.
“I’ve got two trees on the roof and a couple of holes on the roof. I have been trying to patch it up the best I can.”
The rest of Mexico Beach did not fare as well, and most beachfront homes, restaurants and stores were obliterated by the storm.
“I spent my life savings and retirement to stay here so I can’t sell it now,” Tenbrunson said.
“I just have to be hopeful that (the town) will be rebuilt and fixed.”
Some residents arrived Friday with vans or moving trucks, hoping to recover as many personal effects from their splintered homes as they could.
Others came with nothing — as there was nothing left to save.
Eight deaths from the storm have been reported in Florida, five in Virginia, one in Georgia and three in North Carolina.
The two deaths in North Carolina occurred in McDowell County when a car struck a tree that had fallen across a road, officials said.
Hundreds of thousands of people remain without electricity in Florida, Georgia and Virginia, and officials say it could be weeks before power is fully restored.
President Donald Trump said he planned to visit Florida and Georgia.
“People have no idea how hard Hurricane Michael has hit the great state of Georgia,” Trump tweeted.
“I will be visiting both Florida and Georgia early next week. We are working very hard on every area and every state that was hit — and we are with you!” Michael was the most intense hurricane to strike the Florida Panhandle since record keeping began in 1851.
Many of the damaged Florida buildings were not built to withstand a storm above the strength of a Category 3 hurricane on the five-level Saffir-Simpson scale.
About 5,000 US servicemen were deployed to help with relief and recovery efforts, the Pentagon said, using 100 helicopters and 1,800 high-water vehicles.
Tyndall Air Force Base, home to F-22 stealth fighters, suffered extensive damage, according to aerial photos of the coastal facility.