PANAMA CITY, Fla. - Search-and-rescue teams fanned out across the Florida Panhandle to reach trapped people in Michael's wake Thursday as daylight yielded scenes of rows upon rows of houses smashed to pieces by the third-most powerful hurricane on record to hit the continental U.S.
At least two deaths were blamed on Michael, and it wasn't done yet: Though weakened into a tropical storm, it continued to bring heavy rain and blustery winds to the Southeast as it pushed inland, soaking areas still recovering from last month's Hurricane Florence.
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 centers, beeping security alarms, wailing sirens and hovering helicopters.
Over 900,000 homes and businesses in Florida, Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas were without power.
"This morning, Florida's Gulf Coast and Panhandle and the Big Bend are waking up to unimaginable destruction," Gov. Rick Scott said. "So many lives have been changed forever. So many families have lost everything. ... This hurricane was an absolute monster."
But the full extent of the damage was only slowly becoming clear, with some of the worst areas difficult to reach. An 80-mile stretch of Interstate 10, the main east-west route along the Panhandle, was closed because of debris.
Mexico Beach decimated
One of the hardest-hit spots was Mexico Beach, where Michael crashed ashore Wednesday as a Category 4 monster with 155 mph (250 kph) winds. Video from a CNN helicopter Thursday revealed widespread devastation across the town of about 1,000 people.
Entire blocks of homes near the beach were washed away, leaving nothing but concrete slabs in the sand. Rows and rows of other homes were reduced to piles of debris or crumpled and slumped at odd angles.
Scott said the National Guard got into Mexico Beach and rescued 20 people who survived the direct hit. The town was under a mandatory evacuation order as the rapidly developing storm closed in, but some people were determined to ride it out.
A day later, the beach town remained difficult to reach by land, with roads covered by fallen trees, power lines and other debris.
The governor pleaded with people in Florida not to go home yet.
"I know you just want to go home. You want to check on things, and begin the recovery process," Scott said. But "we have to make sure things are safe."
Scott was set to tour damage by helicopter Thursday afternoon.
In Quincy, about 30 minutes north of Tallahassee, trees were strewn about, an awning was torn off a business and the metal roof of a church turned into a missile in winds of Hurricane Michael.
Quincy residents said the storm was intense and loud and they were not surprised to wake up to destruction.
"Had a fence down and a backward tree came in the back of my house. I live in town here, and so I
have an older century home. We were glad we didn't sustain any major damage to the roof, but there's
a lot of stuff that are down like trees here and that type of thing," Neal Faircloth said.
Most people in the area said they felt lucky to be OK after riding out the storm.
Chainsaws could be heard buzzing as trees were cleared. And driving on the roads was like navigating a maze.
“Me and my son stayed here at home. It was a little rough at times, but we were fine,” Sarah Durham said as she sat on her front porch.
The trees pulled down power lines and blocked intersections, and warehouse roofs were ripped apart.
People out and about looked for ways to help any way they could.
In Tallahassee, multiple roads were blocked, live power lines were down, and the heavy winds knocked down massive trees.
Just off West Pensacola Street, a tree went through the middle of a home where Florida State students live. The students were not hurt.
A state emergency-management official said all hospitals in the impacted region have reported some form of “critical failure” --- water and sewage problems or infrastructure issues such as crumbling walls --- that required patients to be relocated and medical field hospitals to be set up.
The official said that after Hurricane Irma in September 2017, a field hospital was required in the Florida Keys for a year, and similar situations may be required with Michael.
Similar issues were arising at nursing homes, and crews were flying in supplies to Florida State Hospital at Chattahoochee, which serves patients with mental illness.
Meanwhile, the state is expecting a surge in humanitarian needs, from a lack of food and water to housing.
Search and rescue underway
The Coast Guard said it rescued at least 27 people, mostly from homes damaged along the Florida coastline, and searched for more victims. Among those brought to safety were nine people rescued by helicopter from a bathroom of their Panama City home after their roof collapsed, Petty Officer 3rd Class Ronald Hodges said.
Florida officials also said they were moving patients from damaged health care facilities.
Search teams -- working by air, boat and on the ground -- have entered Panama City, Mexico Beach, Alligator Point, Eastpoint, St. George Island and Apalachicola. The U.S. Coast Guard ran 10 rescue missions into the region Wednesday night.
The Red Cross is bringing in 500 disaster relief workers.
More than 5,000 people were in 34 shelters that have been opened across the region.
Scott said one benefit of the rapidly moving Michael was that it hit during the day and was out of the state before sunset.
As of 9 a.m. EDT, Michael was centered about 40 miles west of Columbia, South Carolina, with winds of 50 mph. It was moving at 21 mph.
The storm was expected to move across North Carolina and Virginia and push into the Atlantic Ocean by late Thursday or early Friday.
Gadsden County remained under a mandatory curfew until further notice and citizens were told to remain in place.
"The roads are not safe and emergency crews may not be able to respond quickly," officials said in a release. "Currently, the Gadsden County Sheriff’s Office, Gadsden County EMS and Fire Services and Gadsden County Public Works crews are working tirelessly to clear the roadways and respond to the hardest hit areas."
Bay County blocks re-entry
Imploring people to be patient, the Bay County Sheriff’s Office said Thursday morning on Facebook that it was temporarily preventing Hurricane Michael evacuees from re-entering the county.
The Facebook post said checkpoints had been set up on three major highways and that the only people allowed to enter were members of relief crews.
The sheriff’s office pointed to numerous “snapped power poles and downed lines” and said clearing roads was a top priority.
“Many of those that did evacuate are asking about re-entry,” the Facebook post said. “Sheriff (Tommy) Ford is working hard to make that happen as soon as possible.”
Bay County was one of the hardest-hit areas Wednesday when Michael came ashore with 155 mph maximum sustained winds.
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.
The Florida National Guard has deployed 3,500 members for search-and-rescue and humanitarian aid, with assistance from National Guard units from as far away as New York and Kansas. The Florida Highway Patrol has 450 troopers working in the Panhandle, while 150 Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers are conducting rescue missions.
Along the 200-mile Panhandle, Michael washed away white-sand beaches, hammered military bases and destroyed coastal communities, stripping trees to stalks, shredding roofs, toppling trucks and pushing boats into buildings.
Trump signs off on 'major disaster'
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., tweeted late Thursday morning that President Donald Trump granted a request for federal assistance for 14 counties: Bay, Calhoun, Franklin, Gadsden, Gulf, Hamilton, Jackson, Jefferson, Leon, Liberty, Madison, Suwannee, Taylor and Wakulla.
Scott said he talked to Trump early Thursday and said the president had declared a major disaster in Florida. The declaration, sought byScott and other state leaders, will offer assistance to individuals and households in the 14 counties.
“He is committed to making every federal resource available to help the recovery,” Scott said.
In a letter to Trump on Wednesday requesting assistance, Scott wrote that the state had already spent close to $40 million on its response.
Surveying the damage
An Associated Press team drove for miles and encountered extensive destruction around Panama City. Though most homes were still standing, no property was left undamaged.
Downed power lines lay nearly everywhere. Roofs were peeled away and sent airborne. Aluminum siding was shredded to ribbons. Homes were split open by fallen trees.
Hundreds of cars had broken windows. Twisted street signs lay on the ground. Pine trees were stripped and snapped off about 20 feet high.
Vance Beu, 29, was staying with his mother at her home at Spring Gate Apartments, a complex of single-story wood-frame buildings. They piled up mattresses around themselves for protection.
A pine tree punched a hole in their roof, and Beu's ears popped because of the drop in barometric pressure from the storm. The roar of the winds, he said, sounded like a jet engine.
"It was terrifying, honestly. There was a lot of noise. We thought the windows were going to break at any time," Beu said.
Sally Crown rode out Michael on the Panhandle thinking at first that the worst damage was the many trees downed in her yard. But after the storm passed, she emerged to check on the cafe she manages and discovered a scene of breathtaking destruction.
"It's absolutely horrendous. Catastrophic," Crown said. "There's flooding. Boats on the highway. A house on the highway. Houses that have been there forever are just shattered."
More than 375,000 people up and down the Gulf Coast were ordered or urged to evacuate as Michael closed in. But it moved so fast and intensified so quickly that people didn't have much time to prepare, and emergency authorities lamented that many ignored the warnings.
Based on its internal barometric pressure, Michael was the third most powerful hurricane to hit the U.S. mainland, behind the unnamed Labor Day storm of 1935 and Camille in 1969. Based on wind speed, it was the fourth-strongest, behind the Labor Day storm (184 mph), Camille and Andrew in 1992.
The News Service of Florida reporter Jim Turner contributed to this report.
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