‘Like an atomic bomb’: Hurricane Michael leaves trail of devastation

Florida and Georgia count cost of one of the strongest hurricanes ever to hit US as downgraded storm dumps rain on Carolinas

the overhang of a gas station is toppled over in the aftermath of hurricane michael
The overhang of a gas station is toppled over in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael in Inlet Beach, Florida. Photograph: Emily Kask/AFP/Getty Images

— The colossal scale of Hurricane Michael’s deadly trail of carnage through Florida’s Panhandle became clear on Thursday as the waning but still powerful storm lashed the Carolinas before heading east towards the Atlantic.

Entire waterfront communities were obliterated by one of the most powerful storms ever to strike the United States and authorities confirmed that at least six people had lost their lives. The death toll was expected to rise.

Downgraded to a tropical storm, the cyclone that struck Florida’s Panhandle as a category 4 monster on Wednesday, with winds of 155mph, dumped large quantities of rain and caused further flooding in areas of South and North Carolina still recovering from Hurricane Florence last month.

But it was Florida, where Governor Rick Scott had predicted “unimaginable devastation”, that clearly fared the worst, with coastal towns inundated by catastrophic wind and a storm surge of up to 14ft from the Gulf of Mexico.

Television pictures showed that some residential waterfront communities had been completely destroyed. Street after street of houses and other buildings were ripped apart in Panama City, boats and warehouses in marinas were smashed into pieces, roofs were ripped from multiple structures in several other communities. Fallen trees and downed power lines were everywhere, with more than a million homes and businesses without electricity in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Virginia and North and South Carolina, according to poweroutage.us.

“It looks like an atomic bomb had hit our city,” resident David Barnes told the Panama City News Herald. “Damage has been widespread.”

Authorities confirmed at least six deaths, four of them in Florida’s Gadsden county near the state capital, Tallahassee. One man was killed when a tree fell on his house. An 11-year-old girl in Seminole county, Georgia, died after a mobile carport was picked up by the wind, crashed through the roof of the home where she was staying, and hit her on the head, the local emergency management agency director, Travis Brooks, told WALB. And a sixth death was confirmed in Iredell county, North Carolina, a male driver whose car was crushed by a tree during the storm.

In Mexico Beach, Florida, where Michael roared ashore at lunchtime on Wednesday with winds gusting to 175mph, the small town of barely 1,000 was “wiped out”, according to Brock Long, the administrator of the federal emergency management agency (Fema). A CNN reporter looked down from a helicopter on whole streets flattened in a town Long called the hurricane’s “ground zero”.

 

First responders were only able to reach the community after daylight on Thursday morning, and more helicopter footage showed national guard troops helping a handful of survivors.

A Mexico Beach town councillor, Rex Putnal, said he was anxiously awaiting news of residents who had defied evacuation orders and chosen to stay.

“Two hundred plus stayed in Mexico Beach to ride out the storm, and I know the people who stayed have done all they can to help everybody [but] I haven’t had any reports back from search and rescue,” he told CNN.

A Mexico Beach resident, Scott Boutell, was close to tears as he spoke to the same reporter in front of his wrecked house: “Our lives are gone here. All the stores, all the restaurants, everything. There’s nothing left here any more,” he said.

At a briefing on Thursday, Governor Scott of Florida spoke of the devastation across the Panhandle. “This hurricane was an absolute monster,” he said. “So many lives have been changed forever. Homes are gone, businesses are gone. Roads and infrastructures along the storm’s path have been destroyed.”

Michael had crossed into Georgia late on Wednesday still as a category 3 hurricane with winds of 125mph, spawning tornadoes, one of which damaged five houses in Roberta. By 5pm Thursday, it was still a tropical storm with winds at 50mph as it moved swiftly towards the North Carolina-Virginia coastline and a weekend Atlantic crossing to western Europe, with southern Ireland and Cornwall in its long-range sights.

In Panama City, two hospitals that were badly damaged were evacuating patients to hospitals in Pensacola.

Federal help was also being sent in. Long, the head of Fema, said it would take some time to establish priority areas of need.

“There’s a lot of debris to get through to get the teams in and be able to assess damage,” he said. “Access to all the areas is one thing, search and rescue is where we are hyper-focused,” he said.

“This is what a category 4, borderline category 5 storm looks like, the worst of the storm surge, the worst of the wind and because it was strong it created a lot of damage far inland. It’s continuing to rush through South and North Carolina today.”

 

Van Johnson Sr, the mayor of Apalachicola, another waterfront community ravaged by the storm, said he was also trying to assess the extent of the damage. “There are so many downed power lines and trees that it’s almost impossible to get through the town,” he said.

Michael was the most powerful storm to hit the US in more than 25 years, and the most powerful on record in the Florida Panhandle. It sprang quickly from a weekend tropical depression, going from a category 2 on Tuesday to a category 4 storm by the time it came ashore.

There have been isolated reports of looting. Congressman Neal Dunn said some arrests had been made in Bay county and the authorities had imposed a curfew.

Donald Trump has approved a major disaster declaration request for Florida, freeing federal resources for recovery efforts. The US president said at the White House that Michael was “an unbelievably destructive, powerful storm. We’ve not seen destruction like that in a long time.”

The cyclone triggered flash floods and mudslides earlier this week in mountain areas of western Cuba. Six people died in Honduras, four in Nicaragua and three in El Salvador.


by Richard Luscombe and agencies | The Guardian