PANAMA CITY, Fla. — The devastation left by Hurricane Michael in several states is still coming into focus, with coastal Florida cities destroyed beyond recognition, and homes, businesses and agriculture torn or swamped inland from Georgia to Virginia.
Hundreds of thousands are left without electricity, and emergency officials have no access to many towns. The US death toll has risen to at least 13 — including five in Virginia and four in Florida — and it’s expected to climb.
“I expect the fatality count to rise today and tomorrow as we get through the debris,” Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long said Friday morning.
Michael, which smacked Florida’s Panhandle as one of the most powerful hurricanes to hit the United States, left Virginia’s coast as a post-tropical low early Friday — and its trail of destruction will take weeks to take into account.
Aerial footage shows coastal cities in the Panhandle wiped out. Residents are walking through piles of debris, some assessing the damage and others trying to find food.
A psychiatric hospital in Florida is isolated after downed trees blocked roads around Chattahoochee, and a tree caused a water line to break. The facility is running on power generators, and helicopters have delivered food and water, the state’s Department of Children and Families said.
• Where is Michael? As of 6:30 a.m. ET Friday, the post-tropical low was moving northeast across the Atlantic Ocean well off Virginia. No tropical cyclone warnings or watches were in effect in the United States. Michael’s outer bands still could drop up to 3 inches of rain from New Jersey to Long Island to Cape Cod, and up to 5 inches over the Massachusetts islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard through Friday afternoon, forecasters said.
• In the dark: At least 1.27 million customers in seven states are without power, including 495,000 in North Carolina.
• 11 killed: The dead include five people in Virginia. Four of those drowned, and the fifth was a firefighter who died in a storm-related crash, officials said. Four people in Florida, a child in Georgia and a man in North Carolina also died.
• Severe crop damage: Georgia officials are receiving reports of damage to pecan, cotton, vegetables and peanut crops. “For me the cotton crop is as bad as it gets. I was picking three bale cotton (this week); today it is gone,” cotton farmer and state Rep. Clay Pirkle said. “Can’t tell the difference between what I’ve picked and what I haven’t.”
• Public health emergency declared in Georgia: The move will help ensure those who rely on Medicare and Medicaid have access to the care they need, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said.
‘A freak accident’
Sarah Radney saw trees falling down all around her grandparents’ home when Hurricane Michael roared over Georgia. She was safe until a carport came crashing through the roof.
“It was just a freak accident, I never heard of anything like that,” said her father, Roy Radney.
Sarah had just started the sixth grade and joined the drama club and the band. Her father says she loved playing the trumpet, acting and singing.
The 11-year-old girl and at least 10 others have been killed since Michael made landfall Wednesday and headed to the northeast, leaving a path of destruction, officials said.
A man who died when a tree fell on a home near Greensboro, Florida, has been identified as Steven Sweet, according to Lt. Anglie Hightower, Gadsden County sheriff’s public information officer.
Three others died in Gadsden County, Hightower said. Authorities did not discuss the circumstances of their deaths, but their bodies have been taken to the medical examiner’s office to determine the cause of death.
In North Carolina, a 38-year-old man died when a large tree fell on his vehicle Thursday on US 64 east of Statesville, Iredell County Fire Marshal David Souther said.
Hundreds of people have been rescued from the debris, and authorities fear the toll could climb higher as search-and-rescue efforts continue.
Signs of hope
Thousands of residents in the Florida Panhandle are slowly returning to their homes and discovering that everything or almost everything they owned has been reduced to rubble.
Linda Clarke gasped repeatedly at the sight of her once new home in Shell Point Beach — now severely damaged.
“But you know what … it’s just stuff, it’s just stuff,” she told her husband, Raoul, as they walked through the ruins. “It’s just stuff we can replace.”
There is not much left of what used to be the parish hall of St. Dominic Catholic Church in Panama City. Despite the destruction, the Rev. Luke Farabaugh and his congregation celebrated Mass on Thursday.
“Things, we can replace,” Farabaugh said on CNN’s “Erin Burnett OutFront.” “We’ve seen a lot of signs of hope. … I’ve been telling people … to have hope.
“Hope is that even if the storm does come, even if I lose my car, my house, my family, even if I lose my life, blessed be God,” he said. “Our reward isn’t just in this life but in the life to come. So we’re just trying to give people hope at this point.”
In the largely destroyed oceanside town of Mexico Beach, Councilwoman Linda Albrecht learned her home was gone through online news video.
“Everything in my house, it was almost like it was pushed back with a bulldozer,” she said
“Mexico Beach needs your prayers,” Albrecht said of the town of about 1,200 people. “It’s not the Mexico Beach we know.”
Flooding in the Carolinas and Virginia
The rapid-moving rainfall from Michael triggered flash floods in parts of Virginia and the Carolinas, including areas threatened by swollen rivers during Hurricane Florence.
Hundreds of residents were rescued Thursday from cars, apartments and homes flooded by rushing water.
In Virginia, the Roanoke River jumped its banks and flooded nearby homes and businesses. Cory Patirlo, who lives near the river, said the impact was unexpected. It was the first time he had nearly 2 feet of water in his home.
“It wasn’t going to get this high, realistically. It never has,” he told CNN affiliate WDBJ.
“I’m gonna be sleeping in my van, with my dogs.”
The water receded within hours in some areas, and cleanup began Friday. Some people are expected to remain in shelters through the weekend as river levels go down.
The impact of climate change on storms
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 the rate of greenhouse gas emissions changes, hurricanes are expected to intensify more rapidly in the coming decades, the scientific research group Climate Central said.