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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 18 November 2018

Rescue hopes turn dark in the wake of Hurricane Michael's devastation

Rescuers are going house to house in search for survivors as the death toll rises to 18

A small army of rescue workers tore through rubble and devastation from Hurrican Michael on Sunday, aware their mission is rapidly changing from search-and-rescue to recovering the dead.

So far 18 people have been killed by the hurricane which took the southwestern tip of the United States by surprise last week with its ferociousness, but the number is likely to rise.

"We're going into recovery mode, unfortunately," Panama City Fire Chief Alex Baird told Reuters.

His town was one of the coastal Florida communities clobbered by the hurricane that made landfall on Wednesday as a Category 4 storm, blowing winds faster than 140 mph and sweeping deadly storm surges.

"At sunrise, we'll start again on our search," Mr Baird said. "We hope that we'll find more (survivors), but it's more and more doubtful."

Hurricane Michael made landfall on Mexico Beach, once an idyllic coastal town in Florida, now compared to a war zone, before tearing through Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia.

It was the most intense hurricane to strike the Florida Panhandle since records began in 1851.

Beachfront buildings, many amounting to people's life savings, were lifted off their foundations and destroyed or swept away.

The grandkids of Alethea Densmore play as she tries to salvage belongings in her apartment with family members in Florida. AFP
The grandkids of Alethea Densmore play as she tries to salvage belongings in her apartment with family members in Florida. AFP

President Donald Trump is expected to visit both Florida and Georgia early this week to inspect the damage, and the White House said late on Saturday that the president was fully committed to helping state and local agencies with the recovery.

For now, the winds have died down, but attention has turned now to providing essential services to those affected by the storm. Medicines, safe water, electricity and shelter are in short supply, especially for those in disparate areas.

More than 1,700 search-and-rescue workers – many veterans of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria last year and some of ground zero after 9/11 – are providing assistance in areas affected by the hurricane.

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Read more:

Dozens of homes, shops and restaurants were lifted foundations in Hurricane Michael

Supercharged overnight, Hurricane Michael menaces Florida

Florida prepares for landfall as Michael strengthens into a hurricane

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On Saturday, rescue crews heard cries for help and crow-barred into a mobile home crumpled by the storm in Panama City, Florida, freeing a mother and daughter, both diabetics who had been trapped in a closet without insulin for two days and were on the verge of diabetic shock, rescuers said.

In Mexico Beach, rescue workers with sniffer dogs walk house to house looking for people trapped or killed in debris. Dogs bark to alert their handlers to the scent of a body under the rubble. Providing the house is clear, they are marked with a green piece of paper with a cross on it.

View of the damaged caused by Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Florida. AFP
View of the damaged caused by Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Florida. AFP

Shortly before the storm, some 290 people had decided not to leave their home in Mexico Beach, ignoring evacuation orders. Police took their names, contact numbers and next of kin. Now, they are working to account for each person, unsure if they abandoned plans to stay, they survived or if their homes turned to graves.

In addition to the search and rescue workers were deployed, seven swift-water rescue teams and nearly 300 ambulances were being deployed, Florida Governor Rick Scott's office said.

On Friday, the governor authorised the Florida National Guard to mobilise more than 3,500 soldiers to help with rescue efforts.

Electricity and phone services were being slowly restored, but it could be weeks before power is restored to the most damaged areas.