Official: Searchers find bodies in hurricane-stricken town

Search-and-rescue efforts underway in Florida Panhandle after Hurricane Michael

By Vic Micolucci - I-TEAM reporter, anchor, Jake Stofan - Tallahassee corespondent, Russ Bynum and Brendan Farrington, Associated Press

Search-and-rescue teams began finding bodies in and around Mexico Beach, the ground-zero town nearly obliterated by Hurricane Michael, an official said Friday as the scale of the storm's fury became ever clearer. But he gave no details on the number of dead.

The death toll across the South stood at 13, not counting any victims in Mexico Beach.

Miami Fire Chief Joseph Zahralban, leader of a search-and-rescue unit that went into the flattened town, said: "There are individuals who are deceased. We do not have a count, but we are working to identify them."

Zahralban spoke as his team -- which included a dog -- was winding down its two-day search of Mexico Beach, the 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.

Blocks and blocks of homes were demolished, reduced to piles of splintered lumber or mere concrete slabs, by the most powerful hurricane to hit the continental U.S. in nearly 50 years.

As the catastrophic damage across the Florida Panhandle came into view 48 hours after the hurricane struck, there was little doubt the death toll would rise.

How high it might go was unclear. But authorities scrapped plans to set up a temporary morgue, suggesting they had yet to see mass casualties.

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.

Across the ravaged region, meanwhile, authorities set up distribution centers to hand out food and water to victims. Some supplies were brought in by trucks, while others had to be delivered by helicopter because roads had yet to be cleared of debris.

Residents began to come to grips with the destruction and face up to the uncertainty that lies ahead.

"I didn't recognize nothing. Everything's gone. I didn't even know our road was our road," said 25-year-old Tiffany Marie Plushnik, an evacuee who returned to find her home in Sandy Creek too damaged to live in.

When she went back to the hotel where she took shelter from the storm, she found out she could no longer stay there either because of mold.

"We've got to figure something out. We're starting from scratch, all of us," Plushnik said.

In the Millville community of Panama City, many historic homes more than 100 years were destroyed. Large oak trees toppled onto houses and cars.

President Donald Trump announced plans to visit Florida and hard-hit Georgia early next week but didn't say what day he would arrive.

"We are with you!" he tweeted.

Shell-shocked survivors who barely escaped with their lives told of terrifying winds, surging floodwaters and homes cracking like eggs.

Emergency officials said they had done an initial "hasty search" of 80 percent of the stricken area, looking for the living or the dead.

Florida 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.

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.

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 ahead of the storm.

The hurricane's eyewall passed directly overhead, severely damaging nearly every building and leaving many a complete loss. The elementary school, the flight line, the marina and the runways were devastated.

"I will not recall you and your families until we can guarantee your safety. At this time I can't tell you how long that will take, but I'm on it," Laidlaw wrote. "We need to restore basic utilities, clear our roads of trees and power lines, and assess the structural integrity of our buildings."

Tallahassee hopes to restore 90% of power by Monday

The state Capitol was spared the brunt of Hurricane Michael, but tropical storm-force winds still managed to knock out 97 percent of the city's power grid, causing more than 100,000 residents in Tallahassee to lose power. 

Tallahassee was started to making progress on day two of recovery.

On Friday morning, George Coaker was getting ready to set up a generator for some temporary relief.

“All we can do is be thankful for what we have you know? Power outages is the least of our worries," said Coaker. "So many people lost their homes and some people lost their lives.”

At the start of the day, power had been restored to 28,000 residents.

Large restoration efforts narrowed traffic down to a single lane on some major streets, such as Thomasville Road, but the inconveniences didn’t seem to bother residents Terry and Katia Coonan.

“It's nothing compared to what other people experienced and so we are not complaining here. Just cleaning the yard," Katia Coonan said.

Terry Coonan added," We're counting our blessings."

Police said powerless traffic lights caused some accidents. 

A number of roads were still blocked off.

Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum spent much of the day surveying damaged areas.

“To just sort of check out various neighborhoods, to try to ensure that we're not missing anybody," Gillum said.

He said the goal is to have all streets open by the end of the day.

The city has an equally ambitious goal for restoring power, hoping to restore 90 percent by the end of the weekend.

“We're moving pretty, in my opinion, pretty rapidly to get people back together," Gillum said.

Gillum said a large amount of outside help is helping with the restoration process.

The number of crews available immediately following Michael, were equal to the height of the restoration following Hermine in 2016, which knocked out power for a week or more in some parts of the city.

The city encourages residents to come out, restock supplies and join in community events over the weekend.

Copyright 2018 by WJXT News4Jax. The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.