'There are no words.' At least six dead as rescuers search through Hurricane Michael's wrath

Published Oct. 11, 2018

TALLAHASSEE — At least four people are dead in Florida from Hurricane Michael, authorities confirmed Thursday evening, as search-and-rescue crews made their first pass through the dangerous and extensive wreckage left behind by the most powerful storm on record to hit the Panhandle.

Two other confirmed deaths from Michael were reported elsewhere, one in Georgia and one in North Carolina. A million people throughout the southeast United States are without power and widespread cell phone and Internet outages have been reported along Michael's path.

Michael buzzsawed through much of North Florida's coast on Wednesday, erasing its white-sand beaches, flinging boats into houses and uprooting trees and power lines everywhere.

Day-after reports of Michael's destruction captured total devastation at Mexico Beach, a sleepy coastal community of just 1,200 residents. Aerial footage showed entire neighborhoods, once populated with beach houses, leveled to nothing but debris by the Category 4 hurricane.

Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long called the city "ground zero" for Michael's brute. In a tweet Thursday morning, Sen. Marco Rubio said he was told, "Mexico Beach is gone."

Panama City — the biggest city between Pensacola and Tallahassee — was in ruins and without power.

DAY ONE: Hurricane Michael thrashes Florida Panhandle with historic fury

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COMPLETE COVERAGE: Hurricane Michael's devastating trek through the Florida Panhandle

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Many stunned residents seemed almost in mourning, not just for the buildings and stuff destroyed but for the feeling that a small-town culture may have been wiped out with the storm.

Boat owners, workers and residents who came to salvage what they could found dirty water swirled with cracked wood planks, snapped masts and scattered, shredded life jackets. There was a strong smell of marine fuel in the air.

"There are no words," said marina employee Sandra Groom, 56, breaking down in tears while taking photos. "I'm devastated. Panama City is devastated."

Officials assessed the damage in Panama City and Bay County as "catastrophic." By late Thursday, columns of power trucks with police escorts were streaming toward the city and the rest of the coast.

Along Harrison Avenue, in the main historic district, many of the business owners are older and may never return to open their shops, said Brian Humboldt, who lives on the strip and runs a sanitation removal company.

"The landscape of the community has changed forever," he said.

The Coast Guard and National Guard first began running search and rescue missions Wednesday night. More casualties are expected as crews dig through the demolished houses.

Officials said the storm's unexpected strength and swift buildup may have caught people by surprise, and they lamented more people didn't heed warnings to leave.

The first death reported Wednesday evening was a man killed by a tree falling on a Panhandle home.

While the stunning images of the flattened buildings and untended fires in Mexico Beach and Panama City have captivated the country, smaller-scale disasters are playing out in Florida's small fishing and agricultural villages along the coast.

Many structures are still standing, but the water damage from the unprecedented storm surge warped wood floors, short-circuited anything electric and left behind mildew and dead fish.

"We've had so many hurricanes but this was by far the worst," said Joy Brown, the owner of a small grocery store in St. Mark's. "It brought in more water, more surge. It blew off part of the roof of the house."

State emergency officials have said Hurricane Michael's destruction across the Florida Panhandle presents unique challenges compared to a large city like Miami or Tampa. The spread-out towns in this area are like dots along the coast, separated by dense forest with few alternative roadways.

That means emergency crews must bulldoze their way to each affected area, an effort that began late Wednesday night and well into the day on Thursday.

Gov. Rick Scott asked for patience and understanding as the country turns its eyes to the mess Hurricane Michael left in its wake.

"It's going to be a lot of work, but we will get help to everybody," Scott said at a morning briefing between national television appearances. "We will stop at nothing to keep people safe."

Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida will remain closed while officials assess what they're calling "widespread catastrophic damage."

Base leaders say no injuries were reported, but an initial assessment found roof damage to "nearly every home" on the base, which is very near where the center of the Category 4 storm made landfall.

Michael weakened into a tropical storm as it went over the Carolinas toward the Atlantic Ocean, but it continues to dump rain on areas still reeling from Hurricane Florence's flooding.

Based on its internal barometric pressure, Michael was the third-most powerful hurricane to hit the U.S. mainland, behind the unnamed Labor Day storm of 1935 and Camille in 1969. Based on wind speed, it was the fourth-strongest, behind the Labor Day storm, Camille and Andrew in 1992.

Scott said total damage is still being assessed. The Property Casualty Insurers Association of America and CoreLogic estimate that insured losses could range from $2 billion to $4.5 billion.

About 2 million meals, 1 million gallons of drinking water and 400,000 pounds of ice are being distributed to the affected areas.

"It's like a bad dream," said Deborah Adams, 28, who moved to Panama City with her two children from a small town in Mississippi. "Like the whole city is gone."

Times/Herald reporter Samantha J. Gross and information from the Associated Press contributed to this report.