Advertisement

Searchers find body in town struck by Hurricane Michael, with more expected

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.

The tally of lives lost across the South stood at 14, including the victim found in the rubble of Mexico Beach.

Advertisement

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."

(Los Angeles Times)

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 winds when the Category 4 hurricane made landfall Wednesday.

Michael was one of the most powerful hurricanes on record to ever make landfall in the U.S., and this Gulf Coast community 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. It's unclear if any of them got out at the last minute or had successfully ridden out the storm.

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 call out to friends or family.

Meanwhile, the Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator, 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."

By Friday, authorities had begun setting up centers to distribute food and water to residents, who were just 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.

Advertisement

Elsewhere, President 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 at the base not to return. 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."

7:05 a.m.: This article was updated with the finding of a body in Mexico Beach.

This article was originally published at 12:35 a.m.

Advertisement
Advertisement