The U.S. death toll from Hurricane Michael rose to 17 on Friday, law enforcement officials said, as rescue crews began searching hardest-hit communities in the Florida panhandle rendered nearly inaccessible by storm damage.
Searchers found one person dead in the rubble of Mexico Beach, said Joseph Zahralban, Miami’s fire chief and the task force leader of a search and rescue unit. Three additional deaths were reported in Marianna, in Jackson County, Florida, Sheriff Lou Roberts told a news conference on Friday afternoon.
The number of fatalities was expected to rise further as rescuers go door to door and comb through the rubble in oceanfront communities such as Mexico Beach, Port St. Joe and Panama City that bore the brunt of the storm’s wrath.
“I think you’re going to see it climb,” Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), said of the death count. “We still haven’t gotten into some of the hardest-hit areas.”
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The dead include at least eight people in Florida, five in Virginia, three in North Carolina and one in Georgia.
FEMA crews have been using bulldozers and other heavy equipment to push a path through debris to allow rescuers to probe the rubble with sniffer dogs as drone aircraft and Blackhawk helicopters searched from above.
Michael blew ashore near the small Florida Panhandle town of Mexico Beach on Wednesday afternoon as one of the most powerful storms in U.S. history, with winds of up to 250 km per hour. It pushed a wall of seawater inland, causing widespread flooding.
The storm, which in less than two days grew from a tropical storm to a Category 4 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, tore apart entire neighborhoods in the Panhandle, reducing homes to naked concrete foundations or piles of wood and siding.