Search and rescue teams found a body on Friday in Mexico Beach, a Florida Panhandle town nearly wiped out by Hurricane Michael, as authorities said there was little doubt the toll would rise further.
The true tally of lives lost across the south was unclear as reports varied, but on Friday night the official toll stood at 14, including the victim found in the rubble of Mexico Beach.
Miami fire chief Joseph Zahralban, leader of a search-and-rescue unit in the 1,000-strong community, said: “We have one confirmed deceased and are working to determine if there are others.”
Zahralban said searchers using a trained dog were trying to determine if that person had been alone or was part of a family. He spoke as his team was winding down its two-day search. Mexico Beach was nearly obliterated by Micahel’s storm surge and 155mph winds when the category four hurricane made landfall on Wednesday.
Michael was one of the most powerful hurricanes to ever hit the US and this Gulf Coast community was in its bullseye. Some residents stayed to meet it. Homes were pushed off their foundations and neighborhoods became submerged.
Hector Morales, a 57-year-old cook, never thought of evacuating. When his mobile home suddenly began floating, he swam to a fishing boat and clambered aboard.
“I lost everything,” Morales said. “But I made it.”
State officials said that by one count, 285 people in Mexico Beach defied mandatory evacuation orders. 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 ruined buildings. They hope to complete those inspections later on Saturday.
They have 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.
Bill Shockey, 86, refused to leave Mexico Beach despite his daughter’s pleas. He said he didn’t want to leave his collection of Gone with the Wind dishes and antique dolls. So he stashed them in a closet before heading to his daughter’s new two-story home.
With a pocket full of cigars and his cat, Andy, Shockey watched the hurricane roll in. The wind shredded the roof of his single-story home. Water rose nearly to the top of his garage door. A neighbor’s home across the street got shoved off its foundation.
Was he scared? “Worried, I think, is more like it,” Shockey said.
His daughter’s home took in some floodwater but was otherwise unscathed. Shockey’s own home of 24 years didn’t fare so well, though his collectibles survived.
“It’s a wipeout,” he said on Friday, adding that he plans to sell up. “Whenever they want, I’m going to move in with my son in Georgia.”
Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Brock Long said he expected the death toll to rise.
“We still haven’t gotten into the hardest-hit areas,” he said. “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.”
By Friday, authorities had begun setting up distribution centers to dole out food and water.
“I didn’t recognize nothing,” said 25-year-old Tiffany Marie Plushnik, an evacuee who returned to a home in Sandy Creek too damaged to live in. “Everything’s gone. I didn’t even know our road was our road.”
Elsewhere, Donald Trump announced plans to visit Florida and Georgia early next week. “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 followed orders to pack what they could in a single suitcase as they were evacuated. The hurricane eyewall passed directly overhead, severely damaging nearly every building. 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.”