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PANAMA CITY (CBSMiami) – More deaths have been linked to Hurricane Michael.
Six people are dead in the storm’s path, and authorities fear the toll could climb higher as search-and-rescue efforts continue. The dead include four people in Florida, a child in Georgia and a man in North Carolina.
Previously, officials in Seminole County, Georgia, said a metal carport hoisted by the wind crashed through a roof, hitting a girl’s head and killing her.
On Thursday, city and emergency workers ventured out assessing the damage wrought by Michael.
“Mexico Beach was wiped out,” said Brock Long, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “That’s probably ground zero.”
Michael made landfall Wednesday near Mexico Beach as monstrous Category 4 hurricane, annihilating homes with its 155-mph winds.
Mexico Beach is not just destroyed. For the most part, it’s not there anymore.
Many of the homes and hotels that populated this beachside town of about 1,200 are gone. A few houses and other structures remain standing, but they’re the exceptions.
Hurricane Michael’s wind and storm surge ripped up buildings like posies and carried them inland. Where homes once stood, offering premium views of the Gulf of Mexico, a few boards lay scattered across foundations.
Cars, mattresses, grills, and toilets were tossed all over town. An entire house was thrown 100 yards down the beach, landing on its side.
“First the cars started floating by and all the debris was in the air,” said Scott Boutwell, a resident of Mexico Beach. “When the water came in, houses started floating in front of our home.”
When Scott got back to his own house, he discovered “we had furniture in our house that wasn’t our furniture. The surge had brought stuff in so bad, the walls collapsed — the only thing I could find of ours was my briefcase.”
While many cities along the Florida Panhandle enjoy the protection of various channel, barrier and tied islands, which can help stifle the impact of storm surge on the mainland, Mexico Beach sits between Crooked Island and the St. Joseph Peninsula, directly on the water.
“As you go east of Panama City, that’s where that wall of water on the eastern side of the eye wall is,” Sen. Bill Nelson said. “You are going to see a lot of destruction when the rescue crews get into Mexico Beach. … That’s where you’re going to see the extreme, extreme devastation.”
Patricia Mulligan said she survived Hurricane Andrew in 1992, only to encounter the wrath of another storm Wednesday.
Mulligan and her family rode out Hurricane Michael in their Mexico Beach condo. She said she moved to the popular seaside destination, about 20 miles east of Panama City Beach, less than three months ago.
As the Category 4 storm’s center crossed nearby, Mulligan said, her concrete complex shook and vibrated against sustained winds of around 155 mph. Water seeped into her fourth-floor apartment.
When she dared to look outside, water was grazing the fronds of tall palm trees on the beach. Homes were swallowed in storm surge. Soon enough, Mexico Beach’s emerald waters and sugar-sand beaches were covered in a dark sea of debris, she said.
Michael ripped apart beach homes and boats, she said. As far as she could see, only one home was still intact. The rest were missing roofs or siding.
The marina her brother owns is submerged, she said. The docks are gone and several boats were capsized, including one belonging to her brother, she said.
“This is total devastation,” she said. “We didn’t think it was going to be this bad.”
Asked why her family didn’t leave, she said she thought they were safe on the fourth floor of a concrete building. Her home is still standing, unlike others, she said.
When she looks outside, she sees damage that reminds her of Andrew, damage that could take as long to rebound from.
“Same devastation. Same winds,” she said. “I would have to say at least as long as it did for Hurricane Andrew, and that took months and months. Could be even years.”
Boutwell said he doesn’t even know where to begin his family’s recovery effort. As he looked around, a new reality set in.
“Our lives are gone here. All the stores, all the restaurants, everything. There’s nothing left here anymore,” he said.
Other catastrophic scenes have emerged across the Florida Panhandle, where Michael left more than 350,000 without power and entire neighborhoods in ruins.
In the decimated city of Callaway, obliterated houses litter rain-drenched roads. Every telephone pole in sight is snapped in half.
“It’s very hard to explain,” said Jason Gunderson, a member of the Cajun Navy rescue group. “The only way I can explain it, through my eyeballs, is a Third World country war zone.”
After slamming Florida and lashing Georgia, Michael is now threatening the storm-weary Carolinas. Tornadoes, dangerous winds, and more flooding are possible in many of the same areas still recovering from Hurricane Florence.
Michael is expected to dump 4 to 7 inches of rain from eastern Georgia to the southern mid-Atlantic and up to 9 inches of rain in parts of North Carolina and Virginia, the National Hurricane Center said.
In Georgia, at least 53 poultry houses were destroyed, the state’s Department of Agriculture said. Many crops, such as vegetables and cotton, may also be affected.
Interstate 10 remains closed. All lanes of I-10 between mile marker 85 to mile marker 166 in Florida are closed due to debris, Florida authorities said Thursday.
More than 486,000 customers don’t have electricity in Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and the Carolinas.
A school that helped Hurricane Maria victims has been destroyed. The students and staff at Jinks Middle School have dealt with disaster before. Last year, they welcomed children who were displaced by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.
This time, the Panama City school was ripped apart by Michael. The debris-covered floor of the school’s gymnasium is now fully visible from outside.
Principal Britt Smith choked up as he looked at images of the decimated building.
“You can’t make sense of it, but what you do is you take the situation, and what we have to make certain that our kids know is that we must be resilient,” Smith said.
“Resiliency is important, and it’s an important life message that we all have to learn. … But at this point, there’s really no making sense. It’s just how do we get together, how do we recover?”
The military families who had to evacuate Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City might not be able to return for weeks, officials said.
“Base leaders do not yet have an estimate of when Tyndall AFB will reopen,” base officials posted on Facebook.
They said recovery teams “have found widespread catastrophic damage,” including roof damage to almost every home on the base.
Uprooted trees, downed power poles and limited communications have greatly hindered first responders and families trying to reach residents in need.
Megan McCall says her brother Jeff and his family were riding out the storm in the Panhandle. No one has heard from them since Wednesday afternoon.
Her brother was able to tell a friend that his home was starting to get cracks in the walls and water was rushing in Wednesday. A neighbor told McCall that all the docks in the area were destroyed and many people are stuck in their homes as the roads have been blocked with debris.
“I just need to know he’s OK,” McCall said. “If the house and the cars are destroyed they can be replaced, but my niece needs her dad — and as much as I sometimes can’t stand him, I would do anything to just know he’s OK.”
FEMA’s Long said he’s worried the number of deaths will rise Thursday.
“Hopefully they don’t, but those numbers could climb as search and rescue teams get out,” he said.
Michael’s strength may reflect the effect of climate change on storms. The planet has warmed significantly over the past several decades, causing changes in the environment.
Human-caused greenhouse gases in the atmosphere create an energy imbalance, with more than 90% of remaining heat trapped by the gases going into the oceans, according to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.
While we might not get more storms in a warmer climate, most studies show storms will get stronger and produce more rain. Storm surge is worse now than it was 100 years ago, thanks to the rise in sea levels.
And unless we change the rate of greenhouse gas emissions, we should expect hurricanes to intensify more rapidly in the coming decades, the scientific research group Climate Central said.
(©2018 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. CNN contributed to this report.)