MEXICO BEACH, Fla.—Search-and-rescue teams began finding bodies in and around Mexico Beach, the ground-zero town nearly obliterated by Hurricane Michael, an official said on Oct. 12 as the scale of the storm’s fury became ever clearer. But he gave no details on the number of dead.
The death toll across the South stood at 13, not counting any victims in Mexico Beach.
Miami Fire Chief Joseph Zahralban, leader of a search-and-rescue unit that went into the flattened town, said: “There are individuals who are deceased. We do not have a count, but we are working to identify them.”
Zahralban spoke as his team — which included a dog — was winding down its two-day search of Mexico Beach, the town of about 1,000 people that was nearly wiped off the map when Michael blew ashore there on Oct. 10 with devastating 155 mph (249 kph) winds.
Blocks and blocks of homes were demolished, reduced to piles of splintered lumber or mere concrete slabs, by the most powerful hurricane to hit the continental U.S. in nearly 50 years.
As the catastrophic damage across the Florida Panhandle came into view 48 hours after the hurricane struck, there was little doubt the death toll would rise.
How high it might go was unclear. But authorities scrapped plans to set up a temporary morgue, suggesting they had yet to see mass casualties.
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. But with cellphone service out across vast swaths of the Florida Panhandle, officials said it is possible that some of those unaccounted for are safe and just haven’t been able to contact friends or family to let them know.
Across the ravaged region, meanwhile, authorities set up distribution centers to hand out food and water to victims. Some supplies were brought in by trucks, while others had to be delivered by helicopter because roads had yet to be cleared of debris.
Residents began to come to grips with the destruction and face up to the uncertainty that lies ahead.
“I didn’t recognize nothing. Everything’s gone. I didn’t even know our road was our road,” said 25-year-old Tiffany Marie Plushnik, an evacuee who returned to find her home in Sandy Creek too damaged to live in.
When she went back to the hotel where she took shelter from the storm, she found out she could no longer stay there either because of mold.
“We’ve got to figure something out. We’re starting from scratch, all of us,” Plushnik said.
President Trump announced plans to visit Florida and hard-hit Georgia early next but didn’t say what day he would arrive.
“We are with you!” he tweeted.
Shell-shocked survivors who barely escaped with their lives told of terrifying winds, surging floodwaters and homes cracking like eggs.
Emergency officials said they had done an initial “hasty search” of 80 percent of the stricken area, looking for the living or the dead.
Gov. Rick Scott said state officials still “do not know enough” about the fate of those who stayed behind in the region.
“We are not completely done. We are still getting down there,” the governor added.
Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Brock Long said he expects to see the death toll rise.
“We still haven’t gotten into the hardest-hit areas,” he said, adding with frustration: “Very few people live to tell what it’s like to experience storm surge, and unfortunately in this country we seem to not learn the lesson.”
Long expressed worry that people have suffered “hurricane amnesia.”
“When state and local officials tell you to get out, dang it, do it. Get out,” he said.
On the Panhandle, Tyndall Air Force Base “took a beating,” so much so that Col. Brian Laidlaw told the 3,600 men and women stationed on the base not to come back. Many of the 600 families who live there had followed orders to pack what they could in a single suitcase as they were evacuated ahead of the storm.
The hurricane’s eyewall passed directly overhead, severely damaging nearly every building and leaving many a complete loss. The elementary school, the flight line, the marina and the runways were devastated.
“I will not recall you and your families until we can guarantee your safety. At this time I can’t tell you how long that will take, but I’m on it,” Laidlaw wrote. “We need to restore basic utilities, clear our roads of trees and power lines, and assess the structural integrity of our buildings.”
By Russ Bynum and Brendan Farrington