Florida counting cost as Hurricane Michael causes huge devastation
At least seven dead after storm lashes US state with buildings washed away or destroyed by high winds
Hurricane Michael's violence was visible yesterday in shattered Florida coastal towns, where rows of homes were ripped from foundations and roofs were peeled off schools by the near-record-force storm blamed for seven deaths.
Under a perfectly clear blue sky, Florida families emerged tentatively from darkened shelters and hotels to an unfamiliar and perilous landscape of shattered homes and shopping centres, beeping security alarms, wailing sirens and hovering helicopters.
Michael smashed into Florida's northwest coast near the small town of Mexico Beach on Wednesday with screeching 250kmh winds, pushing a wall of seawater inland.
"The wind was really tearing us apart. It was so scary," said retiree Tom Garcia (60), who was trapped inside his Mexico Beach home as water poured in to waist height.
He and his partner Cheri Papineau (50) pushed on their door for an hour to stop the storm surge bursting in as their four dogs sat on top of a bed floating in their home.
Video shot by CNN from a helicopter showed homes closest to the water in Mexico Beach had lost all but their foundations. A few blocks inland, about half the homes were reduced to piles of wood and siding and those still standing had suffered heavy damage.
"This morning, Florida's Gulf Coast and Panhandle and the Big Bend are waking up to unimaginable destruction," Governor Rick Scott said.
"So many lives have been changed forever. So many families have lost everything. This hurricane was an absolute monster."
Michael, the third most powerful hurricane ever to hit the US mainland, weakened overnight to a tropical storm but marched northeast yesterday, toppling trees with 80kmh winds and bringing "life threatening" flash flooding to Georgia and Virginia, the National Hurricane Centre (NHC) reported.
At least seven people were killed by the storm in Florida, Georgia and North Carolina from falling trees and other hurricane-related incidents, according to state officials.
Gulf Coast Regional Medical Centre in hard-hit Panama City, 32km northwest of Mexico Beach, was treating some of the injured. The hospital was evacuating 130 patients as it faced challenges of running on generators after the storm knocked out power, ripped off part of its roof and smashed windows, a spokesman for the hospital's owner HCA Healthcare said in an email.
Authorities said the state mental hospital in Chattahoochee, which has a section for the criminally insane, was cut off by land, and food and supplies were being flown in.
Much of Port St Joe, 19km east of Mexico Beach, was underwater after Michael hit, snapping boats in two and hurling a large ship onto the shore, residents said. Only first responders were allowed in and an 8pm curfew was imposed.
In Panama City, buildings were crushed, tall pine trees were sent flying and a steeple was knocked off a church.
At the city's Jinks Middle School, the storm peeled back part of the gym roof and tore off a wall. A year ago the school welcomed students and families displaced by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.
"I have had employees going to the communities where our kids live, going door to door and checking," Principal Britt Smith by phone. "I have been up since 3.30 or 4am emailing and checking on staff to see if they are safe. So far, everybody seems to be very safe."
Nearly 950,000 homes and businesses were without power in Florida, Alabama, the Carolinas and Georgia on yesterday.
The number of people in emergency shelters was expected to swell to 20,000 across five states by today, said Brad Kieserman of the American Red Cross.
Authorities said a falling tree killed a man outside Tallahassee, Florida, and an 11-year-old girl in Georgia was killed when the winds picked up a carport and dropped it on her home. One of the carport's legs punctured the roof and hit her in the head.
With a low barometric pressure recorded at 919 millibars, a measure of a hurricane's force, Michael was the third strongest storm on record to hit the continental United States, behind only Hurricane Camille on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 1969 and the Labor Day hurricane of 1935 in the Florida Keys.