PANAMA CITY, Fla. (AP) — The devastation inflicted by Hurricane Michael came into focus Thursday with rows upon rows of homes found smashed to pieces, and rescue crews began making their way into the stricken areas in hopes of accounting for hundreds of people who may have stayed behind.
At least three deaths were blamed on Michael, the most powerful hurricane to hit the continental U.S. in over 50 years, and it wasn’t done yet: Though reduced to a tropical storm, it brought flash flooding to North Carolina and Virginia, soaking areas still recovering from Hurricane Florence.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott said the Panhandle woke up to “unimaginable destruction.”
“So many lives have been changed forever. So many families have lost everything,” he said.
The full extent of Michael’s fury was only slowly becoming clear, with some of the hardest-hit areas difficult to reach because of roads blocked by debris or water. An 80-mile stretch of Interstate 10, the main east-west route along the Panhandle, was closed.
Some of the worst damage was in Mexico Beach, where the hurricane crashed ashore Wednesday as a Category 4 monster with 155 mph winds and a storm surge of nine feet. Video from a drone revealed widespread devastation across the town of about 1,000 people.
State officials said 285 people in Mexico Beach had defied a mandatory evacuation order ahead of the storm.
National Guard troops made their way into the ground-zero town and found 20 survivors Wednesday night, and more rescue crews were pushing into the area, with the fate of many residents unknown.
As thousands of National Guard troops, law enforcement officers and medical teams fanned out, the governor pleaded with people in the devastated areas to stay away for now because of hazards that included fallen trees and power lines.
“I know you just want to go home. You want to check on things and begin the recovery process,” Scott said. But “we have to make sure things are safe.”
Over 900,000 homes and businesses in Florida, Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas were without power.
As the storm made its way inland, it caused havoc in Georgia, spinning off possible tornadoes and taking down power lines and trees. Forecasters said it could drop up to 7 inches of rain over the Carolinas and Virginia before pushing out to sea Thursday night.
In North Carolina’s mountains, motorists had to be rescued from cars trapped by high water.
“For North Carolina, Michael isn’t as bad as Florence, but it adds unwelcome insult to injury, so we must be on alert,” Gov. Roy Cooper said.
More than 375,000 people up and down the Gulf Coast were ordered or urged to clear out as Michael closed in. But emergency authorities lamented that many people ignored the warnings.
“Why people didn’t evacuate is something we should be studying,” said Craig Fugate, former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and a former Florida state emergency management chief. “Is there more the government can do? But we ask that every time.”