MEXICO BEACH, Fla. — Florida authorities fielded a barrage of calls about people missing in Hurricane Michael’s aftermath as search-and-rescue teams Friday made their way through ravaged neighborhoods, looking for victims dead or alive. The death toll stood at 13 across the South.
The number of dead was expected to rise, but authorities scrapped plans for setting up a temporary morgue, indicating they had yet to see signs of mass casualties from the most powerful hurricane to hit the continental U.S. in nearly 50 years.
Search teams continued to pick their way through the ruins of Mexico Beach, the ground-zero town of about 1,000 people that was nearly wiped off the map when Michael blew ashore there on Wednesday with devastating 155 mph winds.
State officials said that by one count, 285 people in Mexico Beach defied mandatory evacuation orders and stayed behind. Whether any of them got out at some point was unclear.
Emergency officials said they have received thousands of calls asking about missing people. But with cellphone service out across vast swaths of the Florida Panhandle, officials said it is possible that some of those unaccounted for are safe and just haven't been able to contact friends or family to let them know.
Gov. Rick Scott said state officials still "do not know enough" about the fate of those who stayed behind in the region.
"We are not completely done. We are still getting down there," the governor added.
Emergency officials said they had done an initial "hasty search" of 80 percent of the stricken area, looking for the living or the dead.
Shell-shocked survivors who barely escaped with their lives told of terrifying winds, surging floodwaters and homes cracking like eggs.
Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Brock Long said he expects to see the death toll 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."
Long expressed worry that people have suffered "hurricane amnesia."
"When state and local officials tell you to get out, dang it, do it. Get out," he said.
Officials, meanwhile, set up distribution centers outside big stores such as Wal-Mart and Publix to pass out food and water to victims. Some supplies were brought in by trucks, while others had to be delivered by helicopter because some roads had yet to be cleared.
The deaths were spread throughout the storm's vast path, from Florida to Virginia, where at least four people drowned in flooding caused by Michael's rainy remnants. Two died in North Carolina when a car smashed into a fallen tree.
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.
A small "ride-out" team that hunkered down as the hurricane's eyewall passed directly overhead ventured out to find nearly every building severely damaged, many a complete loss. The elementary school, the flight line, the marina and the runways were devastated.
High winds, downed trees, streets inundated by rising waters and multiple rescues of motorists from waterlogged cars played out in spots around Virginia and neighboring North Carolina. And while forecasters said Michael was gradually losing its tropical traits, a new chapter would begin as an extratropical storm predicted to intensify with gale force winds once it starts cross out into the Atlantic.
In North Carolina's mountains, motorists had to be rescued Thursday from cars trapped by high water. High winds toppled trees and power lines, leaving hundreds of thousands without power. Flash flooding also was reported in the big North Carolina cities of Charlotte and Raleigh. Similar scenes played out in parts of Virginia as the storm raced seaward.
All told, more than 900,000 homes and businesses in Florida, Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas were without power.
Meanwhile, thousands of National Guard troops, law enforcement officers and rescue teams still had much to do in the hardest hit area: Florida’s Panhandle. Families living along the Panhandle are now faced with a struggle to survive in a perilous landscape of shattered homes and shopping centers, the storm debris spread far and wide.
In one community, Panama City, most homes were still standing, but no property was left undamaged. Downed power lines and twisted street signs lay all around. Aluminum siding was shredded and homes were split by fallen trees. Hundreds of cars had broken windows. The hurricane damaged hospitals and nursing homes in Panama City, and officials worked to evacuate hundreds of patients.
"So many lives have been changed forever. So many families have lost everything," said Florida Gov. Rick Scott, calling it "unimaginable destruction."
An insurance company that produces models for catastrophes estimated Michael caused about $8 billion in damage. Boston-based Karen Clark & Company released that estimate Thursday, which includes privately insured wind and storm surge damage to residential, commercial and industrial properties and vehicles. It doesn't include losses covered by the National Flood Insurance Program.
And Michael also was deadly, both in Florida and beyond.
A man outside Tallahassee, Florida, was killed by a falling tree was the first of "4 storm-related fatalities" announced by the Gadsden County Sheriff's office. An 11-year-old girl in Georgia died when Michael's winds picked up a carport and dropped it through the roof of her grandparents' home. A driver in North Carolina was killed when a tree fell on his car. Then, as Michael blew through Virginia as a tropical storm, authorities said five people there were killed, including four who drowned and a firefighter whose truck was struck by a tractor-trailer as he responded to an accident in heavy storm conditions.
Some fear the toll can only rise as rescue teams get around storm debris blocking roads and reach isolated areas.
More than 375,000 people up and down the Gulf Coast were ordered or urged to clear out as Michael closed in. But emergency authorities lamented that many ignored the warnings.
The Coast Guard said it rescued at least 27 people before and after the hurricane's landfall, mostly from coastal homes. Nine people had to be rescued by helicopter from a bathroom of a home in hard-hit Panama City after their roof collapsed, Petty Officer 3rd Class Ronald Hodges said.
In hard-hit Mexico Beach alone, state officials say, 285 people in Mexico Beach defied a mandatory evacuation order ahead of Michael. The task ahead: finding and hopefully safely accounting for all those who stayed behind.
National Guard troops made their way into the ground-zero town and found 20 survivors initially Wednesday night, and more rescue crews are arriving. But the fate of many residents was unknown.
Mishelle McPherson and her ex-husband searched for the elderly mother of a friend. The woman lived in a small cinderblock house about 150 yards (meters) from the Gulf and thought she would be OK. The home was found smashed, with no sign of the woman.
"Do you think her body would be here? Do you think it would have floated away?" McPherson asked.
Contributors in Florida include Associated Press writers Jay Reeves in Panama City, Brendan Farrington in St. Marks, Gary Fineout in Tallahassee, Tamara Lush in St. Petersburg, Terry Spencer in Fort Lauderdale, and Jennifer Kay and Freida Frisaro in Miami. Others include Jonathan Drew in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Seth Borenstein in Kensington, Maryland.