Rescue teams using sniffer dogs carried out a grim search for victims of Hurricane Michael on Friday amid fears that the death toll from the monster storm—which currently stands at 11 -- could rise.
“When you have that type of damage it takes some time to get in and actually go through and do the search and rescue,” said Brock Long, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
“We hope to have 100 percent of the initial search and rescue done in Florida today,” Long told reporters.
The Florida Panhandle town of Mexico Beach was pulverized by the Category 4 storm which crashed ashore on Wednesday, razing many homes to their foundations with 155 miles per hour winds and several feet of storm surge.
A mandatory evacuation was issued for the town of 1,000 on the Gulf of Mexico coast, but how many residents actually heeded the warning is unknown.
“You hope that somehow at the last minute a bunch of people got up and left or went somewhere else,” Florida Senator Marco Rubio told CNN.
But judging from the number of homes reduced to “sticks,” he said “my sense is they are going to find more victims.” Rubio added: “I truly pray I’m wrong, but common sense tells you that if you were in that house when that happened you did not make it.” Search-and-rescue teams were using sniffer dogs as they sifted through the rubble looking for victims.
Bob Tenbrunson, a Mexico Beach retiree, rode out the storm at his daughter’s house in nearby Panama City and returned to survey the damage to his home.
“I was going to stay here until it turned to a Cat 4,” he said. “So I followed the mandatory evacuation order and left with my wife.
“Luckily we did not get a surge,” Tenbrunson said of his home. “I’ve got two trees on the roof and a couple of holes on the roof. I have been trying to patch it up the best I can.”
The rest of Mexico Beach did not fare as well, and most of the beachfront homes, restaurants and stores were obliterated by the storm.
“I spent my life savings and retirement to stay here so I can’t’ sell it now,” Tenbrunson said. “I just have to be hopeful that (the town) will be rebuilt and fixed.” At least four deaths from the storm have been confirmed in Florida, five in Virginia, one in Georgia and one in North Carolina.
Hundreds of thousands of people remain without electricity in Florida, Georgia and Virginia, and officials say it could be weeks before power is fully restored.
Hurricane Michael made landfall in Mexico Beach on Wednesday as a Category 4 storm.
Long, the FEMA chief, said Michael was the most intense hurricane to strike the Florida Panhandle since record keeping began in 1851.
Many of the damaged Florida buildings were not built to withstand a storm above the strength of a Category 3 hurricane on the five-level Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, Long added.
About 5,000 US servicemen were deployed to help with relief and recovery efforts, the Pentagon said, using 100 helicopters and 1,800 high-water vehicles.
Tyndall Air Force Base, home to the F-22 stealth fighter, suffered extensive damage, according to aerial photos of the coastal facility.
The base was evacuated ahead of the hurricane and the costly fighter planes were flown to other installations out of the path of the storm.