Officials expect death toll to rise from Hurricane Michael

MEXICO BEACH, Fla. — Search and rescue teams have found a body in the Florida Panhandle town nearly wiped out by Hurricane Michael, and authorities said there is little doubt the death toll will rise further.

Traffic lights remained out Saturday, with police directing traffic at intersections, and lines at the few gas stations that were open were five to six cars deep.

The tally of lives lost across the South stood at 14, including the victim found in the rubble of Mexico Beach. Authorities said there is little doubt that number will rise further.

Miami Fire Chief Joseph Zahralban, leader of a search-and-rescue unit that entered the devastated community, said: “We have one confirmed deceased and are working to determine if there are others.”

Zahralban said searchers, who were using a trained dog, were trying to determine if that person had been alone or was part of a family.

He spoke Friday as his team was winding down its two-day search of Mexico Beach, the town of about 1,000 people that was nearly obliterated by Michael’s storm surge and devastating 155 mph (249 kph) winds when the Category 4 hurricane made landfall Wednesday.

Michael was one of the most powerful hurricanes to ever make landfall in the U.S., and this Gulf Coast community of about 1,000 people was in its bullseye. While most residents fled ahead of the storm’s arrival, others stayed to face the hurricane. Some barely escaped with their lives as homes were pushed off their foundations and whole neighborhoods became submerged.

Hector Morales, a 57-year-old restaurant cook, never even thought of evacuating. His mobile home wasn’t on the beach but when it suddenly began floating during the hurricane, he jumped out and swam to a fishing boat and clambered aboard.

“I lost everything,” Morales said. “But I made it.”

How many others were not so fortunate was still not clear. State officials said that by one count, 285 people in Mexico Beach defied mandatory evacuation orders and stayed behind.

Emergency officials said they had completed an initial “hasty search” of the devastation, looking for the living or the dead, and had begun more careful inspections of thousands of ruined buildings. They hope to complete those inspections later Saturday.

They’ve received thousands of calls asking about missing people, but with cellphone service out across a wide area, they found it impossible to know who among those unaccounted for were safe but just unable to dial out to friends or family.

Meanwhile, Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Brock Long said he expects the death toll will 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.”

Albert Blackwell, 65, was preparing Saturday to cover holes in the roof of his apartment and take a chainsaw to trees that fell and broke his windows just outside Panama City.

“I’m the idiot that rode it out here in this place,” he said, sweat dripping from his face.

A team of firefighters came through Saturday to check on Blackwell and his neighbors, as well as the structural stability of their damaged homes.

“They’re doing a good job,” Blackwell said. “The fire chief was here earlier. The police department has come.”

He figured rebuilding his home will take months. But for now he doesn’t plan to leave.

“The immediate day after (landfall), I stopped looters from coming in here,” he said. “We’re staying to protect our place.”

Authorities have set up distribution centers to dole out food and water to victims, who just were coming to grips with the brutal realities of their situation.

“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 a home in Sandy Creek too damaged to live in.

Elsewhere, President Donald Trump announced plans to visit Florida and hard-hit Georgia early next week but didn’t say what day he would arrive.

“We are with you!” he tweeted.

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 before 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.”

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