Searchers on Friday found the first body in the rubble of the Florida coastal town of Mexico Beach, which was nearly obliterated by Hurricane Michael, as the toll from the historic storm rose to at least 17 and was expected to rise.
Rescue teams, hampered by power and phone outages, used cadaver dogs, drones and heavy equipment to search for hundreds of people unaccounted for in devastated communities across the Florida Panhandle.
No other information was available about the deceased man found in Mexico Beach, said Joseph Zahralban, Miami’s fire chief and the task force leader of a search and rescue unit. He said it was unclear if the man was living alone or with a family.
Three deaths were reported in Marianna, in Jackson County, Florida, Sheriff Lou Roberts told a news conference on Friday afternoon.
The dead include at least eight people in Florida, five in Virginia, three in North Carolina and one in Georgia.
DOGS AND BULLDOZERS
FEMA crews have been using bulldozers and other heavy equipment to push a path through debris to allow rescuers to probe the rubble with specially trained search dogs.
More than 1,700 search and rescue workers have been deployed, Governor Rick Scott’s office said in a statement, including seven swift-water rescue teams and nearly 300 ambulances.
Michael crashed ashore near Mexico Beach on Wednesday afternoon as one of the most powerful storms in U.S. history, with winds of up to 155 miles per hour (250 km per hour). It pushed a wall of seawater inland, causing widespread flooding.
“We didn’t have anything,” said Ruth Corley, a spokeswoman for the Bay County Sheriff’s Department. “We’ve been writing things down on pieces of paper. We’re doing what we can with the minimal media that we have.”
She said local television stations were knocked off the air for two days, and authorities were relying on the Gulf State College radio station to broadcast public service bulletins. Search teams were going door-to-door looking for victims.
FEMA’s Long urged communities such as Mexico Beach, where many homes were pulverized by 12 to 14 feet (3.7 to 4.3 meters) of storm surge, to rebuild to withstand future storms.
“It’s OK if you want to live on the coast or on top of a mountain that sees wildfires or whatever, but you have to build to a higher standard,” he said. “If we’re going to rebuild, do it right.”
Even as rescuers searched the rubble for survivors or the deceased, some residents of Mexico Beach were nervously trickling back on Friday, expressing hope the place, nicknamed “the Forgotten Coast,” would not change too much as it rebuilds.
“I don’t think it will ever be the same,” said husband Danny Sinclair, 64, who is semi-retired. “People will just pack up and leave.”