First body uncovered in town obliterated by Hurricane Michael, death toll expected to rise as searches continue

Search-and-rescue teams found at least one body in Mexico Beach, the ground-zero town nearly obliterated by Hurricane Michael, an official said as the scale of the storm's fury became ever clearer.

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: "We have one confirmed deceased and are working to determine if there are others."

Zahralban said searchers were trying to determine if that person had been alone or was part of a family.

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 Wednesday with devastating 250km/h winds.

Blocks and blocks of homes were demolished, reduced to 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. Some of them successfully rode out the storm. It was unclear how many of the others might have gotten out at the last minute.

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.

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 of debris still blocking roads.

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

"I didn't recognise 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.

President Donald Trump announced plans to visit Florida and hard-hit Georgia early next 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 apart.

Emergency officials said they had completed an initial "hasty search" of the stricken area, looking for the living or the dead, and had begun more careful inspections of thousands of ruined buildings. They said nearly 200 people had been rescued.

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.

Homes at Mexico Beach on Florida’s Gulf Coast have been left shredded in the wake of Hurricane Michael’s 250kmh winds. Source: Associated Press

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