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Hurricane Michael death toll rises as rescue crews struggle to access hard-hit areas

NBC News logo NBC News 10/12/2018 Elisha Fieldstadt and Alex Johnson and Rima Abdelkader

With at least six people killed by the most powerful storm to hit the Florida Panhandle in recorded history, officials warned Thursday that the number was likely to rise as search crews struggled to gain access to ravaged areas and sift through the piles of debris. 

Utility companies said almost 1½ million customers were without power from Florida to Virginia on Thursday night as Michael remained a tropical storm a day and a half after landfall, with maximum sustained winds of 60 mph.

The National Hurricane Center said the storm would move off the Atlantic Coast but that it would remain dangerous well into Friday, with tropical storm-force winds extending as far as 275 miles from the center.

Michael made landfall in Mexico Beach, Florida, on Wednesday just shy of Category 5 hurricane strength, with winds gusting at 155 mph. While the storm weakened through the night as it passed over Georgia, it still proved deadly. 

Track Hurricane Michael

"Unfortunately in these types of things as we go through and sift through damage, ultimately those who didn't heed warnings, particularly around the Mexico Beach area — we typically see deaths climb, unfortunately," Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said on CBS on Thursday. 

Florida Gov. Rick Scott said Thursday: "This hurricane was an absolute monster. And the damage left in its wake is still yet to be fully understood."

And Michael still isn't finished, especially in the Carolinas, which are still cleaning up from Hurricane Florence.

"We need people in South Carolina and North Carolina to remain vigilant and be careful. This is a strong tropical storm pushing through," Long said on "Today."

Sharon Black, who lives in Wilmington, North Carolina, worried that Michael's winds would blow away debris still piled up on front lawns from Florence. 

"I spent three or four weeks trying to take care of things" after Florence, she said, adding that she hoped this storm would take it easy on the Carolinas. 

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said 6 inches of rain had fallen in parts of the state, triggering a mudslide in McDowell County, 100 miles west of Charlotte.

Almost 1½ million customers remained without power, local utilities reported — more than 550,000 of them in North Carolina, along with more than 400,000 in Virginia and 300,000 in Florida. Long said it would likely be a while before all power was restored.

A man was killed when a tree fell on a residence in Greensboro, Florida, Sgt. Anglie Hightower, a spokeswoman for the Gadsden County Sheriff's Office, told NBC News. Three other people in Gadsden were killed in separate storm-related incidents, Hightower said.

Another man was killed in Iredell County, North Carolina, north of Charlotte, when a tree fell on his car, said Cooper, who blamed the incident on the storm. NBC affiliate WCNC of Charlotte reported that the incident happened Thursday on Mocksville Highway in the town of Chambersburg. Officials didn't say whether anyone else was in the car.

An 11-year-old girl was killed near Lake Seminole, Georgia, when a metal carport used for boats was picked up by wind, crashed through the roof of a house and struck her in the head, said Travis Brooks, director of emergency management for Seminole County. The emergency call came in on Wednesday afternoon, but responders weren't able to get to the home until early Thursday because "the roads were so messed up," Brooks said. 

Long said that crews were able to get to some hard-hit areas in the Florida Panhandle on Wednesday night but that getting to Mexico Beach, Apalachicola and Panama City Beach was deeply challenging because of damaged bridges leading to those areas. 

The Coast Guard said shallow water response crews had rescued about 40 people, in addition to having helped evacuate 142 nursing home patients to a hospital in Pensacola. Scott, meanwhile, said 20 people were rescued uninjured from Mexico Beach overnight.

Mike McAuliffe, 30, stayed in Panama City Beach with his wife, Rebecca, 33, during the storm.

"It's easily the scariest thing I've ever lived through," McAuliffe said in an interview. The couple were assessing damage and trying to help neighbors on Thursday.

Rebecca McAuliffe said: "You can't even recognize some of the areas in town." 

Scott urged residents to stay inside so search-and-rescue teams could get through, adding that many roads were impassable anyway. "You will not be able to get home if you live in or near the coast," he said. 

An 80-mile stretch of Interstate 10, which weaves through the Panhandle, was closed Thursday so crews could clear debris, the Florida Highway Patrol said. Northeast, in Tallahassee, many more roads were closed, and 90 percent of the city was without power.

Two hospitals in Panama City were closed, but two temporary facilities opened to receive their patients and other people injured by the storm.

At Scott's request, President Donald Trump signed a major disaster declaration on Thursday.

The president told reporters that those affected by the storm were in his prayers, and he said the administration "will not rest or waver" until recovery was complete.

"The only thing we can say about Michael with certainty is that it was so fast. It went through like a bullet, but it was a devastating bullet," Trump said.

While many parts of the Panhandle remained inaccessible on Thursday, aerial drone video showed the scope of devastation in Mexico beach. Houses — what was left of them — littered the street. Closer to the ocean, squares of concrete served as the only evidence that houses had stood there just the day before.


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