PORT ST. JOE, Fla. (Reuters) - Rescuers searched for survivors in the rubble of ravaged beach communities on Thursday after Michael, one of the most powerful hurricanes in U.S. history, slammed into the Florida Panhandle, causing widespread flooding and killing at least seven people.
Michael struck Florida’s northwest coast near the small town of Mexico Beach on Wednesday afternoon with top sustained winds of 155 miles per hour (250 kph), pushing a wall of seawater inland.
The storm tore entire neighborhoods apart, reducing homes and businesses to piles of wood and siding, damaging roads and leaving scenes of devastation that resembled the aftermath of a carpet-bombing operation.
U.S. Army personnel used heavy equipment to push a path through debris in Mexico Beach to allow rescuers through to search for trapped residents, survivors or casualties, as Blackhawk helicopters circled overhead. Rescuers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency used dogs, drones and GPS in the search.
“We prepare for the worst and hope for the best. This is obviously the worst,” said Stephanie Palmer, a FEMA firefighter and rescuer from Coral Springs, Florida.
Much of downtown Port St. Joe, 12 miles (19 km) east of Mexico Beach, was flooded after Michael snapped boats in two and hurled a large ship onto the shore, residents said.
“We had houses that were on one side of the street and now they’re on the other,” said Mayor Bo Patterson, who watched trees fly by his window as he rode out the storm in his home seven blocks from the beach. Patterson estimated 1,000 homes were completely or partially destroyed in his town of 3,500 people.
“There were mandatory evacuation orders, but only idiots like us stuck around,” said Jordon Tood, 31, a charter boat captain in Port St. Joe. “This was my sixth (hurricane), so I thought I was prepared.”
At Jinks Middle School in Panama City, the storm peeled back part of the gym roof and tore off a wall. A year ago, the school welcomed students and families displaced by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.
“I have had employees going to the communities where our kids live, going door to door and checking,” said Principal Britt Smith by phone. “I have been up since 3:30 or 4 a.m. emailing and checking on staff to see if they are safe. So far, everybody seems to be very safe.”
With a low barometric pressure recorded at 919 millibars, a measure of a hurricane’s force, Michael was the third strongest storm on record to hit the continental United States, behind only Hurricane Camille on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 1969 and the Labor Day hurricane of 1935 in the Florida Keys.
It weakened overnight to a tropical storm.
Fast-moving Michael, a Category 4 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale when it came ashore, was about 5 miles (8 km) northwest of Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, at 8 p.m. (0000 GMT), with top sustained winds of 50 miles (80 kph) as it headed for the Atlantic coast, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.
It was still toppling trees with 50-mph (80-kph) winds and bringing life-threatening flash flooding to areas of Georgia and Virginia, still recovering from Hurricane Florence as it marched northeast.
Parts of Virginia were struck with heavy rains and flash flooding, said Jeff Caldwell, a spokesman for the state Department of Emergency Management. Early on Friday, the center of the storm was set to drift past Virginia Beach back into the Atlantic Ocean, he said.
At least seven people were killed in Florida, Georgia and North Carolina from falling trees and other hurricane-related incidents, according to state officials.
Emergency services carried out dozens of rescues of people caught in swiftly moving floodwaters in North Carolina.
Many of the injured in Florida were taken to hard-hit Panama City, 20 miles (32 km) northwest of Mexico Beach. Gulf Coast Regional Medical Center was treating some, but the hospital evacuated 130 patients as it faced challenges running on generators after the storm knocked out power, ripped off part of its roof and smashed windows, according to a spokesman for the hospital’s owner, HCA Healthcare Inc.
Almost 1.2 million homes and businesses were without power from Florida to Virginia on Thursday because of the storm.
The number of people in emergency shelters was expected to swell to 20,000 across five states by Friday, said Brad Kieserman of the American Red Cross.
Brad Rippey, a meteorologist for the U.S. Agriculture Department, said Michael severely damaged cotton, timber, pecans and peanuts, causing estimated liabilities as high as $1.9 billion and affecting up to 3.7 million crop acres (1.5 million hectares).
Michael also disrupted energy operations in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico as it approached land, cutting crude oil production by more than 40 percent and natural gas output by nearly one-third as offshore platforms were evacuated.
Reporting by Devika Krishna Kumar in Port St. Joe, Fla.; Additional reporting by Rod Nickel in Panama City, Fla., Gina Cherelus and Scott DiSavino in New York, Gary McWilliams and Liz Hampton in Houston, Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas, Humeyra Pamuk in Washington and Alex Dobuzinskis and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing by Andrew Hay and Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Peter Cooney