Hurricane Michael disappeared out to sea on Friday, leaving behind it the kind of wreckage you would expect from the fourth-largest storm on record in the United States. Michael tore through the Florida Panhandle, heading north from its origins in the Gulf of Mexico, and made its way through Georgia and up the Southern coast before it finally headed out to the Atlantic. The strength of the storm – which carried winds of up to 155 miles per hour – was made all the more deadly by the sheer amount of time it lasted: when Michael crossed into Georgia, it was still a Category Three hurricane.
Michael, which devastated areas of the East Coast as far north as Virginia, was nothing short of a disaster for the slew of Southern states that lay in its path. 18 people, so far, have been reported dead, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is conducting emergency rescues and searches for thousands of people reported stranded and missing. Brock Long, a FEMA administrator, said he expects the death toll to continue to climb: “We still haven’t gotten to some of the hardest-hit areas.”
No area of the U.S., however, was as badly hit as Florida, which caught the storm when it was still a Category Four hurricane, just as it made landfall. The volunteer search-and-rescue network CrowdSource Rescue said that it was currently looking for more information on 2,100 Floridians reported to the site. Entire neighborhoods on the Florida coast were leveled, and aerial views of the disaster area show entire blocks reduced to square plots of land covered in rubble. At least three of the recorded deaths so far were in Jackson County, Florida, with another under investigation in the county and several people still trapped in their homes.
“There’s a group of us who have been warning about this for years,” said Rodney E. Andreasen, the director of emergency management in Jackson County. The county is 40 miles inland, and while Andreasen said he saw something like this coming, the scale of devastation is not something he could have imagined. “This is the worst disaster Jackson County has ever seen.”
In Mexico Beach, which met with the strongest part of the storm just as Michael was making contact with the United States, entire houses were picked up by the 10-foot waves created in the storm surge. Some structures were lifted up in their entirety as they were carried across local highways and thrown into other buildings. Hector Morales had to swim away from his mobile home after it began floating in the surge, eventually climbing aboard a fishing boat. “I lost everything, but I made it,” he said. Footage from inside the eye of the storm in Mexico Beach went viral during the week: a lone camera on an empty two-way highway captures the towering mass of clouds that makes up the eye-wall. The relative quiet from inside the eye is soon shattered as the wall approaches.
In Panama City, Vance Beu and his mother were scrambling to keep their house from joining the wreckage. “It was terrifying, honestly,” said Beu. “There was a lot of noise. We thought the windows were going to break at any time. We had the inside windows kind of barricaded in with mattresses. We did whatever we could to kind of hunker down.”
Michael is the strongest storm to hit the U.S. since Hurricane Andrew in 1992, and the strongest ever on record in the Panhandle. 30 million people were under hurricane watch or warning as the 320-mile-wide storm approached the coast. As rescue teams continue the search for missing people and possible survivors, the death toll is expected to climb.
On its website, FEMA encourages people to “send money, not stuff,” in order to help with the recovery effort: “A financial contribution to a recognized disaster relief organization is the most effective donation to make.”